A Fo'c's'le Tragedy by Percy Longhurst

An Ancient Mariner's Yarn

"Yeh may gas about torpedoes an' 'fernal machines an' such like, but yeh can't learn me nothin'; onct I had t' do wi' suthin' o' th' sort that turned th' heads o' a dozen men from black ter white in 'bout ten minutes," and the ancient mariner looked at me with careful impressiveness.

"Bad, eh?" I inquired.

"Sh'd think it was—for them poor chaps."

"Didn't turn your hair white, Uncle?"

"Gue-e-ss not," and the ancient mariner had a fit of chuckling that nearly choked him.

When he recovered he told me the yarn. I had heard several of old Steve's yarns, and I considered that his fine talents were miserably wasted; he ought to have been a politician or a real estate agent. This yarn, however, might very well have been true.

"It was 'bout nineteen years ago," Steve commenced, "an' I'd jest taken up a job as cook on the Here at Last, a blamed old Noah's Ark of a wind-jammer from New York to Jamaica. She did th' trip in 'bout th' same time as yeh'd walk it. She was a beauty—an' th' crew 'bout fitted her. Where th' old man had gathered 'em from th' Lord on'y knows; but they was th' most difficult lot I've ever sailed with, which is sayin' a deal consid'rin' that, man an' boy, I've been a sailor for forty years. They was as contrairy as women, an' as stoopid as donkeys. I couldn't do nothin' right for 'em. They complained of the coffee, grumbled at th' biscuit, an' swore terrible at th' meat. But most of all they swore at me."

"'It all lies in th' cookin',' an old one-eyed chap, named Barton, used ter say. 'Any cook that is worth his salt can do wonders wi' th' worst vittles'; an' he told me how he'd once sailed with a cook as c'd make a stewed cat taste better'n a rabbit. An', durn me, when I went ashore next, an' at great risk managed to lay holt of a big tom and cooked it for em, hopin' to please 'em, an' went inter th' fo'c's'le arter dinner an' told 'em what I'd done, ef that self-same chap, Barton, didn't hit me over th' head wi' his tin can for tryin' ter poison 'em, as he said. They complained to th' old man, too, which was worse; for when we got t' th' next port my leave ashore was stopped, an' all for tryin' to please 'em. Rank ingratitood, I call it.

"Another time I tried to give the junk—it really was bad, but as I hadn't bought th' stores, that wasn't no fault o' mine—a bit of a more pleasant flavor by bilin' with it a packet o' spice I found in th' skipper's cabin. One o' th' sailors comes into my galley in a towerin' rage arter dinner.

"'Yer blamed rascal,' he said, an' there was suthin' like murder in his starin' eyes. 'Yeh blamed rascal, whatcher been doin' ter our grub now?'

"'What's th' trouble, Joe?' I asks quietly.

"'Trouble, yeh skunk,' he howls; 'our throats is hot as hell, all th' skin's comin' off 'em; Bill Tomson's got his lips that blistered he can't hold his pipe between 'em. What yeh been doin?'

"'Hold hard a jiffy,' I said, an' looks at what was left o' th' spice I'd used. I nearly had a fit.

"'Go 'way,' I says, pullin' myself together; ''t ain't nuthin'.'

"An' it wasn't nuthin'; but there was such an almighty run on th' water barrel that arternoon th' old man was beginnin' ter think a teetotal revival had struck th' Here at Last. But though cayenne pepper drives a chap ter water pretty often while th' effect lasts, it don't have no permanent result, as th' old man found out. Course it was a mistake o' mine; but ain't we all liable to go a bit astray?

"I'm jest givin' yeh these few examples t' show yeh that things wasn't altogether O.K. 'tween me an' the crew. They was always swearin' at me, an' callin' of me names, an' heavin' things at me head, because I'd done or hadn't done suthin' or other. An angel from heaven wouldn't have pleased 'em; an' as I never held much stock in the angelic trust yeh kin easily understand we was most times very much at sixes an' sevens.

"One evenin' I was sittin' in th' fo'c's'le patiently listenin' ter th' horrible language in which they reproached me because one o' 'em had managed t' break a front tooth in biting a bit o' th' salt pork they'd had for dinner, which was certainly no fault o' mine, when one of 'em, an English chap he was, an' the worst grumbler of all, suddenly cries:

"'Jeerusalem, wouldn't I give somethin' fer a drop of beer just now. Strike me pink if I ain't a'most forgotten what the taste o' it's like.'

"'Me, too,' said Harry Towers, the carpenter. 'A schooner o' lager an' ale! Sakes! Wouldn't it jest sizzle down a day like this?'

"'My aunt! I'd give a month's pay f'r a quart,' the surly Britisher says fiercely.

"'A quart, why don't yeh ask for a barrel while yeh're about it; then I'd help yeh drink it,' I says.

"'Yer, yer blighted, perishin' idiot,' he shouts—it was him that'd broken his tooth. 'What, waste good beer on yer that's fit fer nothin' but cuttin' up into shark bait!'

"'That ain't th' way t' talk to a man as is always ready an' willin' t' help yeh,' I says reproachfully.

"The chap glares at me like a tiger with the colic. His language was awful. 'Lord 'elp us,' he finishes up with, 'why, yer've done nuthin' but try ter pizen us ever since we come aboard. Ain't I right, mates?'

"'Righto,' they choruses; an' I begin t' think they'd soon be gittin' up to mischief.

"'P'raps I might help yeh t' git some beer if yer was more respectful,' I says hurriedly.

"'Beer!' they all yells, an' looks up at me all to onct as if I was a dime museum freak.

"'Yes, beer,' I says quietly.

"'An' where'd you be gittin' it from?' asks one.

"'Never yeh mind that,' I answers. 'I've a dozen or two bottles of English stout I brought aboard, an' since yeh're so anxious to taste a drop o' beer, I don't mind lettin' yeh have some—at a price, o' course.'

"'What's the figure?' Towers inquires suspiciously. He was a Michigan man.

"'A dollar th' bottle.'

"'What!' shouts th' man as was ready t' give a month's pay fer a quart. 'A dollar th' bottle! Why, yer miserable old skinflint!'

"'A dollar th' bottle. That's the terms, take 'em or leave 'em,' says I, very firmly.

"They talked a lot, and they swore a lot more, but finally seem' as I wasn't t' be moved, and that they couldn't get the beer except at my price, the hull ten of 'em agreed to have a bottle apiece.

"'Money down,' I stipulates; an' after a lot o' trouble they collects seven dollars between 'em, an' tells me it's all they've got, an' if I didn't bring up th' ten bottles mighty quick they'd knock me on th' head an' drop me overboard.

"'Mind,' I said, as I goes off to th' galley, money in my hand; 'don't yeh let th' officers see yeh drinkin' it or they'll think yeh've been broachin' cargo, an' that's little short o' mutiny.'

"'Bring up that beer,' growls the Britisher, almost foamin' at th' mouth.

"When I came back with th' ten bottles o' stout in a basket they all looked so pleased an' happy it did my heart good ter look at 'em.

"'Hand it over,' they shouts impatiently.

"'I'm afraid it's gone a bit flat,' I said, as I handed th' bottles round. 'But I've tried to pull it round.'

"Flat or not, they weren't goin' to kick; an' they was jest 'bout to unscrew the stoppers when the second mate suddenly shoves his head down the hatchway an' yells out:

"'On deck, yer lazy, skulking, highly colored lubbers. Tumble up at once, an' git a lively move on, or I'll be down an' smarten ye up!'

"McClosky, the second mate, was not a fellow who stood any nonsense, an' th' men weren't long before they was out o' th' fo'c's'le, grumblin' an' swearin' as only men who've lost their watch below can. They just stayed long enough t' shove th' unopened bottles o' stout well out o' sight underneath th' mattresses o' their bunks an' then they was up on deck working like niggers. A squall had struck the Here at Last; mighty inconvenient, these squalls in the Caribbean Sea are, an' th' Here at Last wasn't best calc'lated t' weather 'em. For two mortal hours everyone was hard at it, takin' in sail, doublin' ropes, an' makin' all ready for what promised t' be a dirty night. All thoughts o' beer was driven out o' their heads. An' when everythin' was ship-shape an' they came below again, soakin' wet an' dog-tired, they just climbed into their berths without stoppin' to think of th' precious bottles o' stout.

"'Bout two o'clock in th' mornin', I was woke up by what sounded like a pistol shot in th' fo'c's'le, an' before I c'd rub th' sleep out er my eyes, there was another, an' another an' another, an' I saw four sailors tumble outer their bunks an' fall on th' floor shriekin' as if they'd been attacked by th' most awful pain. Everyone else in th' fo'c's'le sits up, wide awake, an' starin' at th' sufferin' wretches on th' floor.

"'Wot th' 'ell's up?' asks th' Britisher; but no one knew, an' th' nex' second there was another explosion, an' he suddenly gave a scream that lifted th' hair on my scalp, an' leaps outer his bunk as if he'd been suddenly prodded in a tender spot wi' a red hot poker.

"'My Gawd!' he screeches; 'th' bunk's exploded an' I'm bleedin' ter death;' an' he starts yellin' like a catamount, runnin' up an' down th' gangway, an' tramplin' upon th' four shriekin', cursin', prayin' sailors who'd been attacked fust.

"'It's an infernal machine, an' it's blowed a hole in me back,' the Britisher yelled; an' we who was lookin' on c'd certainly hear suthin' drippin' from th' bunk he'd just got out of.

"'Owch! I'm blowed t' bits. I'm bein' murdered. I'm dyin', Lord help me,' Harry Towers, the carpenter, wails; an' there was another terrific bang, an' outer his bunk Harry shot, landin', on th' chest o' one o' th' moanin' squirmin' sailors. Th' poor fellow, findin' himself thus flattened out, an' not knowin' what it was had fallen on him, gives a gaspin' sort er yell, an' drives Towers in th' back wi' his fist.

"Th' row goin' on was suthin' terrible; a' 'sylum full o' ravin' lunatics on th' rampage couldn't have made more noise; an' them that hadn't been hurt was beginnin' t' feel as bad as them that was, when someone scrambles down th' companionway.

"It was McClosky, th' second mate, whose watch on deck it was. He'd heard th' row—an' no wonder—an' thinkin', I dessay, that murder or mutiny was goin' on, came forward to investigate. He was a red-headed, hot-tempered Irishman, an' c'd handle a crew in rare style.

"'What th' dickens——' he commences, when one o' th' men on th' floor, seein' th' gun in his hand, an' not recognizin' him, shouted, 'They're comin' t' finish us,' an' grabs th' mate round th' legs wi' th' grip of a boa constrictor.

"Th' mate, sure it was mutiny, lets off his gun permiscuous. A clip on the jaw made th' sailor let go, an' th' mate, seein' Towers groanin' on th' floor quite close, kicks him hard an' asks what's th' matter.

"'We're blown up, sir,' Towers whimpers.

"'Blown up, ye fool, what d' ye mean? Who's blowin' ye up?' demands McClosky.

"'Dunno, sir,' Harry stammered; an' just then there was two more explosions, an' a couple more o' the seamen bundled headlong out er their berths, utterin' doleful shrieks that'd make yer heart stand still.

"Th' mate was kickin', swearin', and shoutin' like a demon, th' men all th' while keepin' up their row as if they was bein' paid a dollar a minute to yell. Then th' skipper put in an appearance. His face was white as chalk, but his hands, in each o' which was a big Colt, were steady as rocks, an' he come down th' ladder like a man who reckons he's in for a good fight.

"'What's all this mean, Mr. McClosky?' he asks, pausin' when he sees there's no fightin' goin' on.

"Whatever th' mate said was drowned by th' row th' sailors was makin', though he bellowed like a frisky bull. Th' old man didn't seem a bit frightened; droppin' one o' th' Colts inter his pocket, he roars, 'Silence'; and steps over to th' berth where Joe Harper, th' bo'sun, was sittin' upright, stiff as a poker, an' his eyes fairly startin' out er his head wi' terror.

"'Now, then, Harper,' he says, an' judgin' by his face th' skipper was 'bout as mad as a bear with a sore head. 'What th' blazes does it mean? Have yeh all gone mad?'

"But th' bo'sun, he was too scared to do more than gape at th' skipper like a codfish three days out er water, an th' old man gits a bit madder.

"'Answer, yeh damn rascal,' he shouted; an' he grabs Harper by th' shoulder an' shakes him until his teeth fairly rattled. But th' bo'sun couldn't say a word.

"'If this ain't enough t' drive a man crazy,' th' skipper yells; 'McClosky, have yeh lost yer senses like all these condemned rascals here? What's th' meanin' o' it?'

"'Don't know, sir; I heard 'em ravin' an' screamin' like lunatics, but I can't get a word out of 'em. Think they must all have become mad,' an' th' mate kicked Towers again t' relieve his feelin's.

"He'd just finished speakin' when suthin' busted underneath th' bo'sun. Harper screams, th' skipper gives a jump an' lets go of his arm, an' Harper falls out er his berth as if he'd been suddenly shot dead, only he was makin' a row like a man suddenly attacked wi' D.T.'s. And at that all th' other miserable wretches on th' floor starts worse than ever.

"Th' skipper pulls himself together, an' goin' t' th' bo'sun's bunk, leans over an' examines it. He poked about f'r a bit, put his fingers into a stream of suthin' that was fallin' from th' bunk to th' floor, an' then by th' light o' th' swingin' oil lamp, I see his face turn a blazin' crimson. I see him take suthin' outer th' bed, an' then he swings round an' faces th' men.

"'Yeh low down, thievin', chicken-hearted, blank, blank scoundrels,' he yells, an' his voice was that loud an' so full o' passion th' sailors were scared into quietness. 'Yeh miserable sneakin' apologies for men! So this is what's th' matter, is it? By gum! If I don't have every mother's son of ye clapped into jail soon as we reach Kingstown, call me a crimson Dutchman. Blown up, are ye? I wish t' th' Lord some of ye had been. Sailors, yeh calls yeh-selves! Why, by gosh! yeh haven't enough spirit t' rob a mouse. What's that yeh say, Towers? Infernal machines, eh? Dyin'! If yeh don't all get a move on ye in double quick time, some of yeh will be. Git out o' my sight, ye blubberin' babies; I'm sick an' ashamed of ye.'

"A more sick an' unhappy lookin' drove I never saw when th' men got on their legs again an' found out they weren't hurt a little bit; an' discovered what it was had caused th' explosions. They wouldn't look at each other; an' they daren't speak or else there'd have been fightin'.

"I went about in fear of my life for days, but they did nothin'; though if they'd known that I—quite innocent o' mischief, yeh understand—had put a dozen grains or so of rice inter every bottle o' stout—amazin' stuff rice for causin' fermentation in hot climates—they wouldn't have stopped short at mere profanity. My life wouldn't have been worth a moment's purchase."