FICTION

COFFIN SHIP

A killer ship battles the Coral Sea, aboard her a drama of death and new life

REESE WOLFE March 1 1943
FICTION

COFFIN SHIP

A killer ship battles the Coral Sea, aboard her a drama of death and new life

REESE WOLFE March 1 1943

A CHILL dawn wind crisped the saltings of Woolloomooloo Bay in Sydney Harbor. It swept the back reaches, the despised corners where men and ships of other days decay at their moorings, and set the water to slapping the crusted pilings of Gilly’s Wharf.

At the shore end of the wharf opposite a small office building a man walked with short, cautious steps as if he were unsure of his footing in spite of the half-light.

He was carrying a roped-up, overstuffed suitcase, and with his free hand he held the upturned collar of his threadbare greatcoat tight against the wind. He’d passed the building when the door rattled open.

“Captain Hardiman!”

He turned slowly. “Well?”

“Step in here a moment, Captain.”

He recognized the owner’s agent’s voice, and, wondering what the devil Skouropolis wanted with him this time of morning, he nodded and turned back. Everything had been settled the night before, but you never could tell about these murky little one-ship companies growing fat on the war. Always shooting the breeze like sea lawyers at the scuttlebutt and never saying what they mean. Didn’t know themselves half the time.

Careful not to stumble, he stepped over the door sill. Skouropolis was at his desk, and seated beside him was the new second engineer, Mr. Lykes. Lykes was a small, bitter man with a gin-reddened face, whose engineer’s ticket was unwelcome in the racks of most ships along the coast. Captain Hardiman ignored him, nodding to Skouropolis. “I sail in an hour you know,” he said, trying to keep the annoyance out of his voice. “Convoys don’t wait.”

“Sure, sure, I know.” Skouropolis waved him to a chair. “Sit down, Captain.”

Captain Hardiman remained standing, with his hands on the back of the chair. He was a square block of a man with a weathered face and sandy hair that gave him a look of self-assurance. But under an ancient scar carved deeply across his brows, his eyes, resting with obvious distaste on Mr. Lykes, had a certain vacancy about them peculiar to the blind or half-blind. “What’s Lykes doing here?” he demanded. “He has his orders. I told him to keep clear of me—here and aboard ship.”

The engineer flushed and stood up. Before he could speak Skouropolis motioned him to the door. “The Captain’s right,” he said hastily. “Everything’s settled anyhow. You’d better go on aboard, Mr. Lykes.”

“So that’s how it is, eh?” Lykes gave a short laugh. “I’m not good enough for the likes o’ you ashore,” he said to Captain Hardiman, “but good enough to sail with when it comes to the dirty work !” The door slammed shut behind him.

Skouropolis pursed his lips. “No need to be harsh, Captain.”

“That’s my business.”

“Yes, yes, of course. Cigarette?”

He had the cigarette in his mouth before he realized Skouropolis was deliberately holding the lighted match so far out of reach he had to lean over the desk to it. Scowling, he leaned forward carefully and took the offered light. If Skouropolis thought to test him that way he had another guess coming. Things weren’t so bad he couldn’t see a match flame—yet.

“I called you in here”—Skouropolis tilted back in his chair, blowing smoke at the ceiling—“because there’s been a slight delay in arranging the Sulu Star’s registry. The manifests and clearances are ready, but it won’t be advisable to use the Panamanian flag as we'd planned—or any flag at all—until I get the matter cleared up. I’ll cable you at San Francisco.”

Captain Hardiman’s knuckles showed white on the chair back. “No flag,” he muttered, and the old, uncomfortable forebodings swept over him. It always had begun with the little things. Straws in the wind. Like this flag business . . . “Still,” he added, speaking half to himself, “what’s a flag these days? She’s no fit ship for a flag anyhow.”

Skouropolis looked relieved. “You’re absolutely right, Captain. A flag can be more hindrance than help in times like these. I’m glad you see that point.”

Captain Hardiman saw the point all right. All of it. And he realized suddenly that so far as Skouropolis was concerned, the new skipper of the Sulu Star could be stone blind. With the ridiculously high insurance they’d piled on her worthless old bones it was clear that all her owners wanted was somebody with a master’s ticket ready to make a pierhead jump, and no questions asked. Well, they’d got their man.

He grunted and picked up his bag. “Before she was sold foreign,” he said measuring each word, “she was the old Red Petrel, wasn’t she?”

“Why, yes, I believe she was called something like that.” Skouropolis shrugged, attempting a feeble smile. “Does it matter?”

“Not if you don’t mind sailing in a killer ship, it doesn’t. A ship that twenty years ago had the name of killing her man every voyage.”

“Surely, Captain, a man of your intelligence—”

“A man of my intelligence isn’t what you’re looking for, mister. You need a man with the reasons I’ve got for taking her to sea and leaving her there. You’ve already had one man nearly killed on her before she sails, and her first skipper’s walked off. It’s only a question of time before the crew smells something in the wind. When they do —when they get the idea they’ve signed on a ship with a curse on her—there are men even in these modern times who—”

Skouropolis brought his fist down hard on the desk. “Just exactly what is it you want?”

Captain Hardiman’s jaw muscles worked. “You called me in here,” he reminded him, “but now that you mention it I’ll tell you what I want. I want plenty of sea room from you and your crowd of shoreside money grubbers to do this dirty job in my own way ! Is that clear?” Without waiting for a reply he fumbled at the door and cleared out.

THE Sulu Star lay at her berth another full hour before Captain Hardiman was satisfied with the trim of the ship. At his sharp commands booms were secured and all hatches were covered and battened. He gave detailed orders for catwalks to be double-lashed over the deck cargoes fore and aft, and finally with all hands poised for the order to cast off, he summoned the astonished mate from the fo’c’sle head.

“Regardless of the weather, Mr. Walker,” he growled, “nobody makes his way for’ard or aft except on the catwalks. Understand?”

“Very well, sir.”

“If they do, or if they take any other unnecessary chances, you can tell ’em I’ll log ’em two for one. I want the deadlights inspected every night at the change of watch, and I want a sharp lookout kept fore and aft twenty-four hours a day. Safety’s the watchword around here, mister, and I’m holding you personally responsible.”

Mr. Walker, plump and mild by nature, fidgeted with his pipe. “Is there—ah—anything special in the wind, sir?”

“Not if you mind your step!”

Outside the Heads a southeaster was rising to a stiff blow, driving an icy rain before it. In the starboard bridge wing with the mate, Captain Hardiman hunched in his oilskins listening for the all-clear that would signal the channel had been swept of mines. It came finally, wailing eerily over the wind, and steaming full ahead to join the rendezvous where the convoy was forming up under a pall of smoke, he peered seaward.

“It’s our signal,” Mr. Walker said. “It says—”

“I see it, mister,” he snapped. Eyes straining, he was dimly aware, then, of the guard ship flashing across their bows in a smother of spray, her signal flags fluttering to the masthead in quick jerks. “Get inside and set your zigzag clock.”

Mr. Walker went into the wheel house, and Captain Hardiman listened closely while the mate gave orders for acknowledging their convoy number and course. Presently he heard him directing a seaman to remove two buckets left on the lower bridge. The stuff would be a load for both hands, he knew, and when he was sure the man was well out on the catwalk below in plain view, he leaned over the weather cloth.

“Belay that! Come back here and do it right!”

The wheelhouse door banged open. “What is it, sir?”

“Have that man come up here, Mr. Walker.”

“Something wrong, sir?”

“Wrong, you blasted idiot? You know my orders. One hand for the ship, one hand for yourself!”

The seaman clumped up the ladder behind him, and he swung around. “Next time you start over the catwalk with both hands full, you’ll be logged. Now get below—and watch your step, man!” The seaman nodded, round-eyed, and backed down the ladder. Captain Hardiman heard the mate cough a couple of times as if he were about to say something, and the wheelhouse door closed again. He would have liked to see Mr. Walker’s face at that moment; if he’d held any notions about the skipper not knowing his way about his own ship, eyes or no eyes, he must be putting them through a hasty overhaul.

At the change of watch the double line of ships was marching over the eastern rim in well-spaced order, and he went into the chart room. The door leading out to the wheelhouse was closed, and on

A killer ship battles the Coral Sea, aboard her a drama of death and new life the other side he could hear Mr. Walker and the second mate conversing in low tones.

“He’s a queer one,” Mr. Walker said. “Doesn’t know the name of his own ship. Called her the Red Petrel this morning, and later, when—”

“Nothing queer about that,” the second mate broke in. “These old coal mills all had different names in the last war. He probably just remembers things -like I do.”

“You’ve sailed in her before, eh?”

“No farther than across from the fitting basin last week. She hasn’t made a voyage in ten, twelve years. But after the donkeyman was hauled off to the hospital the other day with a piece of gauge glass in his neck, the port engineer got gabby. Said that more than one of these old trollops got a bad name in the last war. Years ago there was one like her, he said, had trouble every time she went out. Rotten plates, stranded hawsers—always something wrong. One voyage her mate killed a winch driver who—”

Captain Hardiman flung open the door. “If you’ve nothing better to do, Mr. Henning,” he said icily, “you might try minding your watch. As for you,” he turned to the mate, “I suggest you clear off the bridge till you’re needed!”

Mr. Henning, tall, angular, and thin-faced with too much convoy duty, watched the captain stamp out of the wheelhouse and ease himself down the companion. He glanced at the perspiring mate and tapped his head significantly. “Maybe you’re right,” he muttered.

But Mr. Walker, hustling to the opposite companion, made no reply.

STEAMING north of east the seas smoothed and the nerve-twisting manoeuvres of convoy navigation settled into orderly routine. But Captain Hardiman’s iron grip on men and ship tightened day by day. At least once in every watch around the clock he appeared at his accustomed place in the starboard bridge wing, aloof, silent. Below, too, his slow step and gaunt face were a familiar sight day and night; he prowled the alleyways and even the fo’c’sle, and more than once Mr. Lykes, on watch in the engine room, glanced up at the middle grating to see the captain’s flat stare fixed on the engines, listening, waiting.

Men began talking in low tones. Nerves tightened, tempers grew short. Fear of the enemy they could understand, but this strange concern with danger from within—seemingly a fear of the ship itself—was an unnatural, demoralizing thing. At supper one night the chief engineer demanded rather tartly if Captain Hardiman weren’t satisfied with the performance of the engines.

“I’m satisfied,” he said. “But you can’t be too sure. You never know.”

The chief put down his knife and fork and carefully wiped his mouth. “Just what is it we can’t be too sure of, sir? I don’t mind saying you’ve got us all jumpy. It’s bad. Bad for morale.”

“Not as bad as dying. She’s an ugly brute of a ship, mister. Never does any harm to freshen the nip on the watches once in a while.”

And as if to confirm his warning, two days north of Middleton Reef a boiler valve exploded. Bits of metal knocked Mr. Lykes from the control platform— or so he said—but if it did, the force of the blast threw him clear of the scalding steam, and the principle damage was done to frayed nerves. The sound of the explosion and the roaring steam billowing up from the engine room put it in someone’s head to shout, “Torpedo!” and brought a guard ship knifing alongside with hoarse enquiries from its loud hailer.

With notable promptness it was Mr. Lykes himself who called the bridge to report the damage; and in spite of the chief’s protest that repairs could be made while the ship kept way, Captain Hardiman insisted upon dropping out of the convoy and drawing the fires. He wanted the job done, as he put it, “shipshape and Bristol-fashion, and no nonsense about it.” Signal flags went up, her engines ceased their throbbing, and the Sulu Star fell off in the rolling troughs of the Coral Sea to drift like a sick warrior left behind on the trail.

“You know”—Mr. Henning raised his voice over the racket of steam blowing off from the emptying boilers—“I can’t help but remember what the port engineer back in Sydney told me about these ships. The way this dirty old bucket has everybody off his dot from the Old Man down, it wouldn’t surprise me to see a murder done before we reach ’Frisco.”

WHEN at last the repairs were done, and the course was set for the long lonely climb up the Pacific, there wasn’t a man aboard who wasn’t wondering when, and from what quarter, disaster would strike. Perhaps that was why Mr. Walker’s news on the following morning seemed so bad.

Thrusting his head in the captain’s cabin door before breakfast he announced that two stowaways had been discovered crawling out of the shaft alley escape hatch.

Captain Hardiman had to brace himself in his swivel chair before swinging around. “Where are they?”

“Here’s one of ’em, sir.” He jerked a little scarecrow of a man over the weatherboard and removed his cap for him. “He’s starving.”

“Where’s the other one?”

“She’s aft—seasick.”

“She!” He half rose from his chair. “How’d they get here—who’s responsible for this?”

The little man twisted his cap. “Captan!” he blurted. “Please?”

“Well?”

“Captan”—he brushed his cap over his damp forehead—“I bag—for my life! I want to go home. I want I will take my wife home to Amurrica,” he said passionately.

“You from the States?”

“I got my papers—my first ones— but I went back to get my wife in Poland, when it was still Poland, that is.” The words were tumbling out. “Now,” he went on, twisting his cap again, “we ain’t nobody. We come down to Sydney from Shanghai when the trouble started, but at Sydney no ship would take us.” He caught his breath. “So I heard about you and we come on this one.”

“What d’you mean, you heard about me?”

“What I mean is, I hear you ain’t nobody neither. Your ship, that is. Like us, see? I'hear you ain’t under no flag this trip. I can pay,” he put in hastily, seeing the captain flush. “I still got a little left.”

Captain Hardiman swore under his breath. “What’s your name?”

“Brankowitz. John Pershing Brankowitz, from Brooklyn My folks,” he added apologetically,“gave us all Amurrican names.” The captain remained silent, and Brankowitz took a deep breath as if screwing up his courage. “My wife”—his voice broke—“my wife will have a baby.”

“What’s that?” Captain Hardiman stood up, fists clenched.

“I got relatives,” Brankowitz pleaded. “Good, close ones in Brooklyn. And if the immigration makes trouble they can’t send us to no worse place than somewhere we been!”

“No worse place?” He gave a short bitter laugh, and Brankowitz ran forward and gripped his hand in both of his. “Captan! I’m asking you to save two lives—three lives. You can’t refuse that!”

Captain Hardiman shook him off. He Jerked his head at the mate. “Get him out of here,” he said hoarsely. “Bring the woman for’ard and put ’em in the cabin next to the chief engineer.”

When they were gone Captain Hardiman had lost his taste for breakfast. He made his way out on deck, feeling like a man caught in the jaws of a trap, and climbed slowly to the chart room.

OFF THE Fijis the sun made a silver griddle of the sea, and the Sulu Star, shearing her way through it, seemed to draw and hold the fierce heat of the dying day.

Malolo Passage and its labyrinthine nests of coral creaming the water around Viti Levu had already dropped astern. Now, swinging north and west of the island, they’d soon be raising the white teeth of Round Table Passage and the shifting, uncharted coral patches off Balmoral Bank.

Captain Hardiman sat, trying hard not to think — while the dead calm seemed to become a vacuum. It was as if the sea were weighted with an oil slick.

Smoke from the stack had fanned down over the decks and hung there. Going up on the bridge to relieve the mate, Mr. Henning surveyed the results distastefully. “This should make the Old Man very happy,” he muttered to Mr. Walker. “Very happy! He’s been waiting for something like this ever since we left Sydney.”

“Seems like it,” Mr. Walker admitted, glancing out at the lone figure in the wing. “I don’t like it. Don’t like it a bit. For one thing, what are we doing so far south?”

“You’ll have to ask him,” said Mr. Henning sarcastically. “I’m only the navigating officer on this packet. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’d give double the pay I’ve got coming to be back in Sydney right now.” He went over to the barometer, tapped it, and gave a low whistle. “We’re in for it, all right,” he said, and added savagely, “I hope he gets a good one!”

Mr. Henning soon got his wish. With the departing sun a wind whined out of the southwest driving a black cloud canopy before it, and seemed to strike from all sides at once. It slammed the vessel on her beam ends, and a mountain of green waters rolled over the poop, tumbling the winches out of their beds, and exploded like thunder amidships. The Sulu Star hung steeply, then sucked clear, and with water cascading from her sky-flung poop she dived and rolled again.

Captain Hardiman fought his way up the steep slant of the bridge wing. He felt the deck drop suddenly, and he brought up hard against the wheel house door. Mr. Henning dragged him in.

“What’s that noise for’ard?” he shouted.

“Boom’s carried away, sir. Stove in the hatch.”

They clung to the engine-room telegraph post as the ship swung crazily. Across the tumult of wind and sea came the bone-jarring smash of the derelict boom ravishing the strongbacks over the hatch. It held steady for the space of a breath, smothered in tons of water, and Captain Hardiman gripped Mr. Henning’s arm. “Is it clear yet—has it carried away?” But another splintering smash at the forehatch made an answer unnecessary.

He listened for it again . . . Slam. And again . . . Slam. It meant a flooded forehold, and instinctively he wondered how long the ancient plates would hold together in these seas.

And then he remembered. Like a sudden, bone-watering disease, the memory gripped him. This was what he’d been planning for, waiting for— the southerly burster. The volcanic reefs of Viti Levu awash at half tide. A floundering, dying ship . . . These were his tools, the tools of a hired killer. And he’d been lucky. Luckier than he’d had a right to expect.

A big thrust of sea loomed over the waterlogged fo’c’sle, broke, foaming at the mast, and shattered the bridge house windows. He motioned to Mr. Henning. “Tell the mate to get the boats ready. I want the oil bags ready in case there’s a chance to use ’em. Then send him up here.”

When Mr. Henning was gone he lurched over to the weatherglass and stood there listening, waiting. He turned. “Quartermaster!”

"Sir?"

“Hear anything? On the beach, I mean. Can you hear the surf?”

"No, sir."

“What about a light? Can you see a light flashing, starb’d side?”

“No, sir. Wait a minute . . . Yes. Yes, I do. About two, three points off the bow . . . There, again, sir!”

Captain Hardiman felt a sudden thickness in his throat. “Put her over,” he said, “—hard right.”

The helmsman’s eyes widened. “Hard right?” he repeated.

“You heard me!” He turned and lunged at the wheel. “Can’t you understand plain English?”

He shouldered the man aside and in short, powerful jerks put the wheel hard over. “Now take it, man—and obey orders!” He crossed to the engine-room speaking tube and gave a long whistle. “Build up all the steam you can give me,” he called. “Then get your crowd up here to the boats, Lykes.”

THE WHEELHOUSE became suddenly oppressively small, and fumbling at the door he fought his way out into the thunderous wind. Out of the chaos of the storm a steady southeast gale was forming, and he clamped his hands on the dodger to steady himself. Lifting his face to the sky he choked, “Red Petrel—you killer !” The words were flung back in his throat. “But you’re finished, done for, you—” he broke off as something clutched his arm.

“Captan! Captan!” Brankowitz’s voice was like a blow in the face. The deck fell away and he felt him clawing at his legs. “My wife—”

Captain Hardiman bent down and pried the little man loose. “Get her up to the boat deck!"

“My wife dies!" Brankowitz screamed. He twisted out of his grip and threw his arms around Captain Hardiman’s knees again. “The baby comes—it comes now—they both die if you don’t do something!"

Captain Hardiman’s knees went weak. He had an insane desire to laugh. He’d believed that everything that could happen to a man in forty years at sea and on the beach had already happened to him. He let go of him and sent him sprawling to the bridge ladder. “Get out!"

The mate stepped over the prostrate form. “The forehold’s flooded!”

“Get this man below! Find out what condition his wife’s in and then come back here. Jump!"

Captain Hardiman waited, ears straining for the mate’s return. At last he floundered up the ladder and leaned close. “The chief says—”

“Damn the chief! What about the woman? Did you see her?"

“The baby’s come!"

Captain Hardiman motioned him into the wheelhouse. Inside he demanded, “Are they all right?"

Mr. Walker ran his tongue over his salt-caked lips. “They’re both alive, if that’s what you mean. The chief says,” he began again, “that the pumps may handle number two—’’

But Captain Hardiman wasn’t listening. The blood had drained from his face while he was making the hardest decision he’d had to make in a lifetime of hard decisions. He glanced at the helmsman. “Swing her,” he ordered. “Swing her north by east, a quarter north. Hard over, before you put her on the reefs!"

At the clear-view screen Mr. Walker gasped. “That’s Round Table Reef close abeam”—he flung out his arm— “we were off our course, sir! You nearly had her on the reefs!”

“I know when I’m off my course. You’d better get below with the medicine chest and lend a hand, You’ll find it under my—” He stopped as the door banged open and Mr. Lykes, his pasty face grotesque with a smear of oil, stood in the doorway. He had a spanner in his hand.

“I didn’t get an answer to my whistle,” he said, his voice sharp with suspicion.

“Get off the bridge! Keep your crowd at the fires till we’re out of this!"

“Out of this?” Mr. Lykes leered at the captain. “Out of this? Ho, no you don’t!” He stepped forward, raising his spanner.

“Now then!" said Mr. Walker and he caught the engineer full on the chin with his fist.

Captain Hardiman saved Lykes from falling. “I’ll thank you to leave this to me," he said to the mate.

“He might have killed you, sir, with that—”

“And a mighty good job if I did," Mr. Lykes mumbled. “He’s in this with me. He knows the sea cocks are open. He was leaving me down there to drown like a rat!”

“The sea cocks?” Mr. Walker repeated. And he looked suddenly sick with understanding. “So that’s it! That’s why we were off our course. That’s why we quit the convoy.” He stared from one to the other, horrified. “You were going to wreck her—scuttle her!”

“Exactly,” said Captain Hardiman. He shoved the fuddled engineer before him through the door. Over his shoulder he said, “We’re getting clear now—we’re getting back on our course. I’m going below with Lykes to close the valves before the engine room floods. Then I’ll be in the woman’s cabin to see what can be done for them. You can send for me there if I’m needed, Mr. Walker.”

ANCHORED in the stream off North Beach at San Francisco, Captain Hardiman was dressed for shore when the port doctor looked in. “All right, Captain. They want to see you in the saloon before you go ashore.”

He found Brankowitz waiting for him, choked with emotion. “Over here, Captan,” he said, and he led the way over to his wife holding a small bundle in her lap. The woman said something he couldn’t understand, and then spoke to her husband in a soft, urgent voice. “She says”— Brankowitz looked apologetic—“she says we name him for you, Captan.”

Captain Hardiman looked quickly away. He wished Brankowitz would take them and clear out; he’d had enough to think about lately . . . Nagging memories wrenching his mind back down the years. Old scenes ending inevitably with the throbbing memory of this same ship’s deck when she was young and noisy with pounding winches ... Of the warning shout as a stranded hawser, clumsily handled, gave way ... Of the blinding slash across his eyes, the pain, the red anger, his half-crazed rush that sent the green winch driver stumbling under his fists into an open hatch . . . And then, finally, the long years begging for ships other skippers didn’t want . . .

“No,” he said, “not my name. There’s a better name. The name of a man”—he hesitated—“a man who’s been dead a long time. He was killed by an old ship of mine. She was the Red Petrel.”

“What was your friend’s name, Captan?”

“His name was Richard.” His voice was almost a whisper. “He was my brother.”

Brankowitz nodded eagerly. “Richard—that’s a good Amurrican name.”

“It’s a strong name,” said Captain Hardiman. “It means strength, courage.” He glanced down at the infant, and remembering that other Richard he felt stronger himself— and free. Free of an old obligation— or a curse—it didn’t matter. He’d commanded his last ship and he was beached for life, but it no longer seemed very important. The important thing was this new life safe here in a new world. Somehow it settled the old score ... A new life settling for an old one.

At the head of the gangway he looked back. “Thank you, Brankowitz,” he said, and walked ashore.