My Stowaway by Robert Barr
"Ye can play yer jokes on Nature,
An' play 'em slick,
She'll grin a grin, but, landsakes, friend,
Look out fer the kick!"
One night about eleven o'clock I stood at the stern of that fine
Atlantic steamship, the City of Venice, which was ploughing its way
through the darkness towards America. I leaned on the rounded bulwark
and enjoyed a smoke as I gazed on the luminous trail the wheel was
making in the quiet sea. Some one touched me on the shoulder, saying,
"Beg pardon, sir;" and, on straightening up, I saw in the dim light a
man whom at first I took to be one of the steerage passengers. I thought
he wanted to get past me, for the room was rather restricted in the
passage between the aft wheelhouse and the stern, and I moved aside. The
man looked hurriedly to one side and then the other and, approaching,
said in a whisper, "I'm starving, sir!"
"Why don't you go and get something to eat, then? Don't they give you
"I suppose they do, sir; but I'm a stowaway. I got on at Liverpool. What
little I took with me is gone, and for two days I've had nothing."
"Come with me. I'll take you to the steward, he'll fix you all right."
"Oh, no, no, no," he cried, trembling with excitement. "If you speak to
any of the officers or crew I'm lost. I assure you, sir, I'm an honest
man, I am indeed, sir. It's the old story—nothing but starvation at
home, so my only chance seemed to be to get this way to America. If I'm
caught I shall get dreadful usage and will be taken back and put in
"Oh, you're mistaken. The officers are all courteous gentlemen."
"Yes, to you cabin passengers they are. But to a stowaway—that's a
different matter. If you can't help me, sir, please don't inform on me."
"How can I help you but by speaking to the captain or purser?"
"Get me a morsel to eat."
"Where were you hid?"
"Right here, sir, in this place," and he put his hand on the square
deck-edifice beside us. This seemed to be a spare wheel-house, used if
anything went wrong with the one in front. It had a door on each side
and there were windows all round it. At present it was piled full of
cane folding steamer chairs and other odds and ends.
"I crawl in between the chairs and the wall and get under that piece of
"Well, you're sure of being caught, for the first fine day all these
chairs will be taken out and the deck steward can't miss you."
The man sighed as I said this and admitted the chances were much against
him. Then, starting up, he cried, "Poverty is the great crime. If I
had stolen some one else's money I would have been able to take cabin
passage instead of—"
"If you weren't caught."
"Well, if I were caught, what then? I would be well fed and taken care
"Oh, they'd take care of you."
"The waste food in this great ship would feed a hundred hungry wretches
like me. Does my presence keep the steamer back a moment of time? No.
Well, who is harmed by my trying to better myself in a new world? No
one. I am begging for a crust from the lavish plenty, all because I am
struggling to be honest. It is only when I become a thief that I am out
of danger of starvation—caught or free."
"There, there; now, don't speak so loud or you'll have some one here.
You hang round and I'll bring you some provender. What would you like to
have? Poached eggs on toast, roast turkey, or—"
The wretch sank down at my feet as I said this, and, recognising the
cruelty of it, I hurried down into the saloon and hunted up a steward
who had not yet turned in. "Steward," I said, "can you get me a few
sandwiches or anything to eat at this late hour?"
"Yessir, certainly, sir; beef or 'am, sir?"
"Both, and a cup of coffee, please."
"Well, sir, I'm afraid there's no coffee, sir; but I could make you a
pot of tea in a moment, sir."
"All right, and bring them to my room, please?"
In a very short time there was that faint steward rap at the state-room
door and a most appetising tray-load was respectfully placed at my
When the waiter had gone I hurried up the companion-way with much the
air of a man who is stealing fowls, and I found my stowaway just in the
position I had left him.
"Now, pitch in," I said. "I'll stand guard forward here, and, if you
hear me cough, strike for cover. I'll explain the tray matter if it's
He simply said, "Thank you, sir," and I went forward. When I came back
the tray had been swept clean and the teapot emptied. My stowaway was
making for his den when I said, "How about to-morrow?"
He answered, "This'll do me for a couple of days."
"Nonsense. I'll have a square meal for you here in the corner of this
wheel-house, so that you can get at it without trouble. I'll leave it
about this time to-morrow night."
"You won't tell any one, any one at all, sir?"
"No. At least, I'll think over the matter, and if I see a way out I'll
let you know."
"God bless you, sir."
I turned the incident over in my mind a good deal that night, and I
almost made a resolution to take Cupples into my confidence. Roger
Cupples, a lawyer of San Francisco, sat next me at table, and with the
freedom of wild Westerners we were already well acquainted, although
only a few days out. Then I thought of putting a supposititious case to
the captain—he was a thorough gentleman—and if he spoke generously
about the supposititious case I would spring the real one on him. The
stowaway had impressed me by his language as being a man worth doing
Nest day I was glad to see that it was rainy. There would be no demand
for ship chairs that day. I felt that real sunshiny weather would
certainly unearth, or unchair, my stowaway. I met Cupples on deck, and
we walked a few rounds together.
At last, Cupples, who had been telling me some stories of court trials
in San Francisco, said, "Let's sit down and wrap up. This deck's too wet
to walk on."
"All the seats are damp," I said.
"I'll get out my steamer chair. Steward," he cried to the deck steward
who was shoving a mop back and forth, "get me my chair. There's a tag on
it, 'Berth 96.'"
"No, no," I cried hastily; "let's go into the cabin. It's raining."
"Only a drizzle. Won't hurt you at sea, you know."
By this time the deck steward was hauling down chairs trying to find No.
96, which I felt sure would be near the bottom. I could not control my
anxiety as the steward got nearer and nearer the tarpaulin. At last I
"Steward, never mind that chair; take the first two that come handy."
Cupples looked astonished, and, as we sat down, I said—
"I have something to tell you, and I trust you will say nothing about it
to any one else. There's a man under those chairs."
The look that came into the lawyer's face showed that he thought me
demented; but, when I told him the whole story, the judicial expression
came on, and he said, shaking his head—
"That's bad business."
"I know it."
"Yes, but it's worse than you have any idea of. I presume that you don't
know what section 4738 of the Revised Statutes says?"
"No; I don't."
"Well, it is to the effect that any person or persons, who wilfully
or with malice aforethought or otherwise, shall aid, abet, succor or
cherish, either directly or indirectly or by implication, any person who
feloniously or secretly conceals himself on any vessel, barge, brig,
schooner, bark, clipper, steamship or other craft touching at or coming
within the jurisdiction of these United States, the said person's
purpose being the defrauding of the revenue of, or the escaping any or
all of the just legal dues exacted by such vessel, barge, etc., the
person so aiding or abetting, shall in the eye of the law be considered
as accomplice before, during and after the illegal act, and shall in
such case be subject to the penalties accruing thereunto, to wit—a fine
of not more than five thousand dollars, or imprisonment of not more than
two years—or both at the option of the judge before whom the party so
accused is convicted."
"Great heavens! is that really so?"
"Well, it isn't word for word, but that is the purport. Of course, if
I had my books here, I—why, you've doubtless heard of the case of the
Pacific Steamship Company versus Cumberland. I was retained on behalf
of the company. Now all Cumberland did was to allow the man—he was
sent up for two years—to carry his valise on board, but we proved the
intent. Like a fool, he boasted of it, but the steamer brought back the
man, and Cumberland got off with four thousand dollars and costs. Never
got out of that scrape less than ten thousand dollars. Then again, the
steamship Peruvian versus McNish; that is even more to the—"
"See here, Cupples. Come with me to-night and see the man. If you heard
him talk you would see the inhumanity—"
"Tush. I'm not fool enough to mix up in such a matter, and look here,
you'll have to work it pretty slick if you get yourself out. The man
will be caught as sure as fate; then knowingly or through fright he'll
"What would you do if you were in my place?"
"My dear sir, don't put it that way. It's a reflection on both my
judgment and my legal knowledge. I couldn't be in such a scrape. But,
as a lawyer—minus the fee—I'll tell you what you should do. You
should give the man up before witnesses—before witnesses. I'll be
one of them myself. Get as many of the cabin passengers as you like out
here, to-day, and let the officers search. If he charges you with what
the law terms support, deny it, and call attention to the fact that you
have given information. By the way, I would give written information and
keep a copy."
"I gave the man my word not to inform on him and so I can't do it
to-day, but I'll tell him of it to-night."
"And have him commit suicide or give himself up first and incriminate
you? Nonsense. Just release yourself from your promise. That's all.
He'll trust you."
"Yes, poor wretch, I'm afraid he will."
About ten o'clock that night I resolved to make another appeal to
Roger Cupples to at least stand off and hear the man talk. Cupples'
state-room, No. 96, was in the forward part of the steamer, down a long
passage and off a short side passage. Mine was aft the cabin. The door
of 96 was partly open, and inside an astonishing sight met my gaze.
There stood my stowaway.
He was evidently admiring himself in the glass, and with a brush was
touching up his face with dark paint here and there. When he put on a
woe-begone look he was the stowaway; when he chuckled to himself he was
Roger Cupples, Esq.
The moment the thing dawned on me I quietly withdrew and went up the
forward companion way. Soon Cupples came cautiously up and seeing the
way clear scudded along in the darkness and hid in the aft wheelhouse.
I saw the whole thing now. It was a scheme to get me to make a fool
of myself some fine day before the rest of the passengers and have a
standing joke on me. I walked forward. The first officer was on duty.
"I have reason to believe," I said, "that there is a stowaway in the aft
Quicker than it takes me to tell it a detachment of sailors were sent
aft under the guidance of the third mate. I went through the saloon
and smoking room, and said to the gentlemen who were playing cards and
reading—"There's a row upstairs of some kind."
We were all on deck before the crew had surrounded the wheelhouse. There
was a rattle of steamer folded chairs, a pounce by the third mate, and
out came the unfortunate Cupples, dragged by the collar.
"Hold on; let go. This is a mistake."
"You can't both hold on and let go," said Stalker, of Indiana.
"Come out o' this," cried the mate, jerking him forward.
With a wrench the stowaway tore himself free and made a dash for the
companion way. A couple of sailors instantly tripped him up.
"Let go of me; I'm a cabin passenger," cried Cupples.
"Bless me!" I cried in astonishment. "This isn't you, Cupples? Why,
I acted on your own advice and that of Revised Statutes, No. what
"Well, act on my advice again," cried the infuriated Cupples, "and go
However, he was better in humour the next day, and stood treat all
round. We found, subsequently, that Cupples was a New York actor, and at
the entertainment given for the benefit of the sailors' orphans, a few
nights after, he recited a piece in costume that just melted the ladies.
It was voted a wonderfully touching performance, and he called it "The