The Cholera Ship by Cutcliffe Hyne

Illustrated by Richard Jack.

She was not the regular Portuguese mail. She was an ancient seven-knot tramp, which had come across from Brazil to Loando, and had been lucky enough to pick up half a cargo of coffee there for Lisbon. She called in at Banana, the station on the mangrove-spit at the mouth of the Congo, where the river pilots live (and on occasion die), and where the Dutch factory used to bring trade till the Free State killed it with duties; and at Banana she had further fortune. There were two hundred and thirty negroes there, Accra men and Kroo-boys mostly, a gang that had made their fifteen or twenty pounds apiece on the railway, and were waiting to go home.

The passenger-boys had collected their chattels, and were gathering in a howling chattering mob by the surf-boats ready to go on board, when the first notion came to me of joining her. It was the Danish harbour-master who gave it. He came up, under his old white umbrella with the green lining, to the house where I was staying, and told me that the tramp was going to call in at San Thomé and the Bonny River.

"Now, we don't hanker to get rid of you here, Mr. Calvert," he said, "but if you want to climb that mountain in Fernando Po, you're not likely to get so good a chance for the next three months to come. Your place is on the road between San Thomé and Bonny, though of course you'll have to make it worth the skipper's while to stop. But that's your palaver."

"Can you put a figure on it?" I asked.

"I should take it," said the harbour-master, "that you could hustle the man into Fernando Po for ten sovereigns. He's only a Portugee. Come aboard now in my gig and see him."

The tramp's interior was not inviting. We went into the chart-house and drank the inevitable sweet champagne with the captain; and whilst the bargain was being made, a thousand cockroaches crawled thoughtfully over the yellow-white paint.

"I tell you straight," said the harbour-master in English, "she's a dirty ship, and the chop'll be bad enough to poison a spotted dog. But if you will go to these Portugee and Spanish places to sweat up mountains, that's part of the palaver."

"Oh, if the grub's good enough for them, it won't kill me."

"Then if you will go, I'll send my boy off in the boat for your boxes one-time, because the Old Man's in a hurry to be off. He's got a bishop on board below, very sick with fever, and he wants to be out of this stew and get to sea again as quick as it can be done. Thinks it'll give the ship bad luck, I suppose, if the bishop pegs out."

The harbour-master's boy was speedy, and the harbour-master himself piloted us out into the wide gulf of the river's mouth. The beer-coloured stream gave up its scent of crushed marigolds strongly enough to pierce through the smells of the ship and the smells of the crowded chattering negroes on the fore-deck, and the old steamer began to groan and creak as she lifted to the South Atlantic swell. The sun went down, and night followed like the turning out of a lamp. The lighthouse flickered out on the Portuguese shore away on the port bow, and above it hung the Southern Cross, a pale faint thing, shaped like an ill-made kite.


The bumping engines stopped, and the Dane came down off the upper bridge. He stood with me for a minute on the brown, greasy deck planks, and then went down the ladder into his boat.

"Oscar-strasse, tretten, Kjobnhavn!" he shouted, as the gig dropped astern. "Mind you come. I shall be home in another nine months."

"Wanderers' Club, London; don't forget; sorry I haven't a card left," I hailed back, and wondered in my mind whether in any of the world's turnings I should ever meet that good fellow again. But the steamer was once more under way, mumbling and complaining, and the store-keeper at that moment was beginning to open the case of dried fish—baccalhao, as they call it on the coast—to which we traced back the hideous plague which in the next few days swept away her people like the fire from a battery of guns.

There were only two other passengers beside the bishop and myself—a pair of yellow-faced, yellow-fingered Portuguese from down the coast, traders both, with livers like Strasbourg geese. The Skipper was a decent, weak little chap from Lisbon, who might have been good-looking if he had sometimes washed; the Chief Engineer was a Swede, who spoke English and quoted Ibsen; and the other officers I never came specially across. There was only one of my own countrymen on board, a fireman from Hull, one of the strongest men I ever met, and certainly the most truculent ruffian. His name was Tordoff on the ship's books, but that was a "purser's name." He spoke pure English when he forgot himself, and certainly had once been a gentleman.


It was baking hot down below, and the place was alive with rats and cockroaches. I rigged a wind-scoop through the port in my room, got into pyjamas, and lay down on the top of the bunk. But I can't say I did much business with sleep; the menagerie held cheerful meetings all round, and the perspiration tickled as it ran off my body in little streams; and these things keep a man awake. My room was to starboard, and when through the porthole I saw day blaze up from behind the low line of African hills, I turned out, rolled a cigarette, and went on deck. I was just in time to see the first funeral.

Four very frightened-looking men and a profane mate were fitting a couple of biscuit sacks over a twisted figure which lay on the grimy greasy deck planks. They pulled one over the head and another over the heels, and then with a palm and needle made them fast about the figure's middle. Afterwards they lashed a fire-bar along the shins, and then, with faces screwed up and turned away, they lifted the body as though it had been red-hot, and toppled it over the rail.

The dead man dived through the swell alongside almost without a splash; but, as though his coming had been a signal, a dozen streaks of foam started up from various points, each with a black triangular fin in the middle of it; and I did not feel any the happier from knowing precisely what that convoy meant.

However, the sharks and the body drifted away into the wake astern, and I rolled another cigarette and got a chair and sat on the break of the bridge deck. From there I saw the mate and his four hands fetch one by one five other bodies out of the forecastle, and prepare them for burial. Three they covered with canvas; and then the supply of biscuit sacks seemed to run out, because the last two they put over the side with the fire-bar attachment only.

The fifth man had to be content with four participators in his funeral. The remaining sailor held strangely aloof; his face turning through a prism of curious colours; his body swaying in uncouth jerks. As the fifth corpse toppled over the rail, this fellow threw himself down on the hatch cover, and lay there writhing and screaming in a torment of cramps.

At that moment a man in a white serge cassock, which reached to his heels, came out of one of the forecastle doors and walked rapidly across to the new victim. He was a long lean man with a hawk's nose, and bright large eyes. The skin of his face was like baggy yellow leather, and it was dry with fever. As he knelt beside the writhing sailor, I saw the metal crucifix nearly fall from his thin hands through sheer weakness. He was the Portuguese bishop from down-coast of course, and when I remembered that he had just been through black-water fever (which is own brother to yellow jack) I judged that from a human point of view he was behaving with exquisite foolishness in meddling with first-crop cholera patients. But I respected him a good deal for all that, and went and got opium and acetate of lead and gave the man on the hatch a swingeing dose. It was a useless thing to do, because the chap had got to die, and one incurred one's own risks by going near him; but if that bishop was a fool, I had got to be a fool too, and there was an end of it.


Mark you, I wasn't feeling a bit frightened then. I'd been through cholera-cramp in India, and knew what my chances were, and was ready to face them without whimpering; though of course I'd freely have given every farthing I was worth to have been snugly back in the Congo again. But the thing had got to be seen through, and I intended to keep my end up somehow. I couldn't afford to die like a rat in a squalid hole like that.

I had breakfast all to myself that morning, because no one else turned up; and afterwards the captain did me the honour to call me into consultation. My Portuguese is off colour, but I speak enough to get along with.

"You English know so much about these things," he said.


"We keep clean ships," I answered, "and when anything goes wrong on them we do not lose our heads. Also we try to trace our way back to the root of evils. How did this plague start?"

"You must have brought it on board at Banana. We had not in the ship before you came."

"We did not bring it. There is no cholera in the Congo now. And, moreover, your passenger-boys are none of them sick. We must try back further."

We did that together laboriously; and at last traced the mischief to that fatal case of baccalhao which had been shipped at Bahia, an infected port; and had this essence of pest promptly thrown to the sharks. Next we went into the question of hands.

"I have not enough firemen and trimmers left to man a single watch," said the captain. "The cholera hit the stoke-hold first. The fellows who are working there now have stood three watches on end, and they are hardly making enough steam to give her steerage way."

"If you let your old beast of a tramp stop and drift about here like a potato-chip in a frying-pan it won't improve matters. Those of us who don't peg out with cholera will start murdering one another. The niggers will begin."

"Yes, I know. I wanted some of them to serve as firemen for good pay. But they will not listen to me. I do not think they understood. Will you come and translate?"

We took revolvers, holding them ostentatiously in our pockets. I crossed the dizzy sunshine of the lower main deck. The negroes on the forecastle head were chattering together like a fair of monkeys, but they ceased when we came up, and stared at us with faces working with excitement.

"Which be head-man?" I asked.

A big fellow stood forward, hat in hand. "I fit for head-man, sar."

I told him hands were wanted for the stoke-hold, and that the gorgeous pay of four shillings English per diem was offered.

"We no fit for stoke, sar," said he. "We gentlemen wid money, sar. We passenger-boys, sar."

"Very well, daddy," said I. "But stoke you've got to. And if you won't do it civilly you'll do it the other way. Now my frien', pick me out twelve good strong boys. If you don't do it, I'll shoot you dead one-time; if they won't work, I'll shoot them. You quite savvy?"

We got the men and they went off to the stokehold, frightened and raging. Poor wretches, eight of them toppled over in the next twenty-four hours, and half-a-day later the engines stopped for the last time. I was smoking industriously under the alley-way, and Tordoff came and loafed near me.

"I'm a bally fine chief-engineer, aren't I?" said he.

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I'm the best man that's left of all our crowd, that's all. They're every sinner of them dead, black men, white men, and Portuguese. Where are we now?"

"Slap bang under the equator. That mountain-top sticking out of the water is San Thomé."

"Then I'm off there," said Tordoff. "This bloomin' steamer's played out. She can't steam, and she wouldn't sail if there was any wind, which there isn't. I shall take one of the boats and skip. You'd better come too."


"What for? Why not?"

"Because there are only two boats and they aren't enough for all hands."

"The boats will hold all the white men, or them that call themselves white. But if you are one of the missionary crowd that hold niggers as good——"

"I'm not. I know what niggers are, and therefore I'm not an Exeter Hall fool about them. I'll make free to tell you this boat-game's been thought of before; but that bishop says he won't leave the niggers to peg out alone; and if he's going to be idiot enough to stay, I am going to be another idiot. That's the size of it."

"Well," said Tordoff, "I've got no use for that kind of foolishness myself, and if you're left, you needn't come and haunt me afterwards. You've had the straight, square tip. And you'll do no good by spreading this palaver about. If anyone tries to stop us there'll be a lot of men killed. We aren't the kind of crowd that'll stick at trifles if we're meddled with. So long!"


He slouched off, and I went to the deck of the bridge and looked down on a curious scene. The main deck was a shambles. There were a score of corpses there, pitching about stiffly to the roll of the ship, with no one offering to touch them. There were a score more of sick, shrieking and knotting themselves in their agony. The survivors were in two sorts of panic—the comatose, and the madly violent. A crowd of yelling dancing negroes, most of them stark naked, had set up a ju-ju on a barrel of the fore-deck winch, and were sacrificing to it a hen which they had stolen from one of the coops. The little wooden god I knew: it was one that I had picked up in the Kasai country, and I was taking it home as a curiosity. It had been lifted from my own state-room by some prowling negro, and was now receiving fresh daubs of red blood amid the clamour of frantic worshippers. It was quite a reasonable thing to expect under the circumstances. But what threw the action of these savages into grotesque relief was the sight of another man crouched in prayer beside the bulwarks. It was the bishop. His tottering hands were pinning the crucifix to his hollow chest; his hips were swaying under him with weakness; his dry cracked lips moved noiselessly; and the molten sunlight beat upon him as it pleased.


The sight of that man gave me a bad feeling. Before I knew quite how it happened, I was down on the frizzling main-deck, and the ju-ju had been plucked from the winch barrel and flung over the side, together with the tortured hen, and I was fighting for my life amongst a crowd of furies. Tordoff was there too (though I'm sure I don't know how he came), and thanks to him I got back again on to the bridge deck; but the bishop did not come with us. He stayed down there amongst those sullen animal blacks, imploring them, praying with them, soothing them. He was a braver man than I, that Portuguese.

Another night came down, and the steamer wallowed in inky blackness. In the morning we were still more helpless. The mates, the few remaining sailors, the stewards and cooks, and the two yellow traders had gone; the captain lay in the alley-way with a knife between his shoulder-blades; the bishop and I and Tordoff were the only white men remaining on board. Yes, Tordoff. I went into the pantry smoking a cigarette, and found him there, eating biscuits and raisins.

"You here?" I said, "Why, man, I thought you cleared out with the rest."

"No," he said, "I thought it would be so fine to stay behind and be able to scoff the cabin grub just as I pleased. I just stayed for the grub, it's worth it."

"You're rather a decent sort of liar," I said; "do you mind shaking hands?"

"I don't see the need," he said; "and besides, I'm using my hands to eat these raisins; but you may kick me if you like. There isn't a redder fool than me in both Atlantics. By the way, how's the padre?"

"Very sick. I looked into his room and found him lying in his bunk. He couldn't talk."

"I put him there. Found the old fool preaching to those beasts on all fours this morning, and looked on till he dropped; then I lugged him under cover."

"Any more dead?"

"Five pegged out during the night. They were lying pleasantly in and amongst the others, and there were seven more sick. I told the head-man when I went down with the padre to have them put over the side or I'd kill him. And when I came back I found he'd shoved over the whole dozen. The man-and-a-brother's a tolerable brute when he comes to handling his own kind, Mr. Calvert."

We went out then and set the passenger-boys to washing down decks. We could not give them the hose because there was no donkey working; but they drew water in buckets and holystoned and scraped and scrubbed till they cleaned the infection out of the decks, and sweated it out of themselves. The cholera seemed to have exhausted itself. There were three other cases, it is true, but they were mild, and none died. In their fright the boys would have chucked their friends overboard as soon as they were taken sick, but I promised the head-man to shoot him most punctually if any one went over the side who was not a pukka corpse, and if niggers were addicted to gratitude (which they are not), there are gentlemen now living on the Kroos coast who might remember me favourably. For we did get in. A B. and A. boat picked us up three weary days later, and towed us at the end of an extremely long hawser into the very place to which I wanted to go.

Of course Fernando Po, being Spanish, kept us very much at arm's length; and we did a thirty days' most rigid quarantine, which made (after the last case had recovered) a matter of forty days in all. But we had no more deaths, and the bishop pulled up into fine form. He was not a man that I could ever bring myself to like, and as Tordoff was for the most part sullen and unwishful for talk, the time that we swung to our anchor off Port Clarence was not exhilarating.

Still it was pleasant to think that one was alive, and to realise that one had got respectably out of a very tight corner—yes, one of the tightest. The tramp's two boats never turned up again. I suppose they carried cholera away with them, and drifted about in the belt of equatorial calms, full of sun-dried corpses, till some tornado came and swamped them. So that we three were the only Europeans left out of thirty-four, and of the two hundred and thirty negroes who left Banana in the Congo, only seventy-four came to Fernando Po. It was a tolerable thinning out, but when it came to climbing the peak, that made up for all which had gone before. Indeed it is a wonderful mountain.

I saw Tordoff again just as I was going away from the island, and tried to put it to him delicately that I was not badly off, and would like to give him a lift if the thing could be managed.

"No, Mr. Calvert," he said, "thanks. I prefer to go to the devil my own gait. I don't suppose you'd ever know who I am; but if anybody describes me and asks, just say you haven't seen me."


And that is the last I have seen or heard of him. It is extraordinary how one drifts away from men. But, on the other hand, I should not be in the least surprised at stumbling across Tordoff again, in purple and fine linen for choice on the next occasion.