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
"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
"CAME DOWN OFF THE UPPER BRIDGE."
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.
"LIFTED THE BODY AS THOUGH IT HAD BEEN RED-HOT."
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
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.
"HE KNELT BESIDE THE WRITHING SAILOR."
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
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
"You English know so much about these things," he said.
"'WE NO FIT FOR STOKE, SAR. WE GENTLEMEN WID MONEY,
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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!"
"'THIS STEAMER IS PLAYED OUT. I SHALL TAKE ONE OF THE
BOATS AND SKIP.'"
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.
"I WAS FIGHTING FOR MY LIFE AMONGST A CROWD OF FURIES."
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
"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
"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
"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."
"'THERE ISN'T A REDDER FOOL THAN ME IN BOTH ATLANTICS.'"
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.