The Wigwag Message
by Morgan Robertson
As eight bells sounded, Captain Bacon and Mr. Knapp came up from breakfast, and Mr. Hansen, the squat and square-built second mate, immediately went down. The deck was still wet from the morning washing down, and forward the watch below were emerging from the forecastle to relieve the other half, who were coiling loosely over the top of the forward house a heavy, wet hawser used in towing out the evening before. They were doing it properly, and as no present supervision was necessary, the first mate remained on the poop for a few moments' further conversation with the captain.
"Poor crew, cap'n," he said, as, picking his teeth with the end of a match, he scanned the men forward. "It'll take me a month to lick 'em into shape."
To judge by his physique, a month was a generous limit for such an operation. He was a giant, with a giant's fist and foot; red-haired and bearded, and of sinister countenance. But he was no more formidable in appearance than his captain, who was equally big, but smooth-shaven, and showing the square jaw and beetling brows of a born fighter.
"Are the two drunks awake yet?" asked the latter.
"Not at four o'clock, sir," answered the mate. "Mr. Hansen couldn't get 'em out. I'll soon turn 'em to."
As he spoke, two men appeared from around the corner of the forward house, and came aft. They were young men, between twenty-five and thirty, with intelligent, sun-burnt faces. One was slight of figure, with the refinement of thought and study in his features; the other, heavier of mold and muscular, though equally quick in his movements, had that in his dark eyes which said plainly that he was wont to supplement the work of his hands with the work of his brain. Both were dressed in the tar-stained and grimy rags of the merchant sailor at sea; and they walked the wet and unsteady deck with no absence of "sea-legs," climbed the poop steps to leeward, as was proper, and approached the captain and first mate at the weather rail. The heavier man touched his cap, but the other merely inclined his head, and smiling frankly and fearlessly from one face to the other, said, in a pleasant, evenly modulated voice:
"Good morning. I presume that one of you is the captain."
"I'm the captain. What do you want?" was the gruff response.
"Captain, I believe that the etiquette of the merchant service requires that when a man is shanghaied on board an outward-bound ship he remains silent, does what is told him cheerfully, and submits to fate until the passage ends; but we cannot bring ourselves to do so. We were struck down in a dark spot last night,—sandbagged, I should say,—and we do not know what happened afterward, though we must have been kept unconscious with chloroform or some such drug. We wakened this morning in your forecastle, dressed in these clothes, and robbed of everything we had with us."
"Where were you slugged?"
"In Cherry Street. The bridge cars were not running, so we crossed from Brooklyn by the Catherine Ferry, and foolishly took a short cut to the elevated station."
"Well, what of it?"
"What—why—why, captain, that you will kindly put us aboard the first inbound craft we meet."
"Not much I won't," answered the captain, decidedly. "You belong to my crew. I paid for twenty men; and you two and two others skipped at the dock. I had to wait all day in the Horseshoe. You two were caught dead drunk last night, and came down with the tug. That's what the runners said, and that's all I know about it. Go forrard."
"Do you mean, captain——"
"Go forrard where you belong. Mr. Knapp, set these men to work."
Captain Bacon turned his back on them, and walked away.
"Get off the poop," snarled the mate. "Forrard wi' you both!"
"Captain, I advise you to reconsider——"
The words were stopped by a blow of the mate's fist, and the speaker fell to the deck. Then a hoarse growl of horror and rage came from his companion; and Captain Bacon turned, to see him dancing around the first officer with the skill and agility of a professional boxer, planting vicious blows on his hairy face and neck.
"Stop this," roared the captain, as his right hand sought the pocket of his coat. "Stop it, I say. Mr. Hansen," he called down the skylight, "on deck, here."
The huge mate was getting the worst of the unexpected battle, and Captain Bacon approached cautiously. His right hand had come out of his pocket, armed with large brass knuckles; but before he could use them his dazed and astonished first officer went down under the rain of blows. It was then, while the victor waited for him to rise, that the brass knuckles impacted on his head, and he, too, went down, to lie quiet where he fell. The other young man had arisen by this time, somewhat shocked and unsteady in movement, and was coming bravely toward the captain; but before he could reach him his arms were pinioned from behind by Mr. Hansen, who had run up the poop steps.
"What is dis, onnyway?" he asked. "Mudiny, I dink?"
"Let go," said the other, furiously. "You shall suffer for this, you scoundrels. Let go of my arms." He struggled wildly; but Mr. Hansen was strong.
Mr. Knapp had regained his feet and a few of his faculties. His conqueror was senseless on the deck, but this other mutineer was still active in rebellion. So, while the approving captain looked on in brass-knuckled dignity, he sprang forward and struck, with strength born of his rage and humiliation, again and again at the man helpless in the arms of Mr. Hansen, until his battered head sank supinely backward, and he struggled no more. Then Mr. Hansen dropped him.
"Lay aft, here, a couple o' hands," thundered the captain from the break of the poop, and two awe-struck men obeyed him. The whole crew had watched the fracas from forward, and the man at the wheel had looked unspeakable things; but no hand or voice had been raised in protest. One at a time they carried the unconscious men to the forecastle; then the crew mustered aft at another thundering summons, and listened to a forceful speech by Captain Bacon, delivered in quick, incisive epigrams, to the effect that if a man aboard his ship—whether he believed himself shipped or shanghaied, a sailor, a priest, a policeman, or a dry-nurse—showed the slightest hesitation at obeying orders, or the slightest resentment at what was said to him, he would be punished with fists, brass knuckles, belaying-pins, or handspikes,—the officers were here for that purpose,—and if he persisted, he would be shot like a mad dog. They could go forward.
They went, and while the watch on deck, under the supervision of the second mate, finished coiling down the tow-line, the watch below finished their breakfast, and when the stricken ones had recovered consciousness, advised them, unsympathetically, to submit and make the best of it until the ship reached Hong-Kong, where they could all "jump her" and get better berths.
"For if ye don't," concluded an Irishman, "I take it ye'll die, an' take sam wan of us wid ye; fur this is an American ship, where the mates are hired fur the bigness o' their fists an' the hardness o' their hearts. Look pleasant, now, the pair o' ye; an' wan o' ye take this hash-kid back to the galley."
The larger of the two victims sprang to his feet. He was stained and disfigured from the effects of the brass knuckles, and he looked anything but "pleasant."
"Say, Irish," he said angrily, "do you know who you 're talkin' to? Looks as though you don't. I'm used to all sorts of guff from all sorts of men, but Mr. Breen here——"
"Johnson," interrupted the other, "wait—it's of no account now. This man's advice is sound. No one would believe us, and we can prove nothing. We are thoroughly helpless, and must submit until we reach a consular port, or something happens. Now, men," he said to the others, "my name is Breen. Call me by it. You, too, Johnson. I yield to the inevitable, and will do my share of the work as well as I can. If I make mistakes, don't hesitate to criticize, and post me, if you will. I'll be grateful."
"But I'll tell you one thing to start with," said Johnson, glaring around the forecastle: "we'll take turns at bringin' grub and cleanin' up the forecastle. Another thing: I've sailed in these wind-jammers enough to know my work; and that's more than you fellows know, by the looks of you. I don't want your instructions; but Mr. Breen, here—Breen, I mean" (a gesture from the other had interrupted him)—"Breen's forgotten what you and I will never learn, though he might not be used to pullin' ropes and swabbing paint-work. If I find one o' you pesterin' him, or puttin' up any jobs, I'll break that man's head; understand me? Any one want to put this thing to the test, now?" He scanned each man's face in turn; but none showed an inclination to respond. They had seen him fight the big first mate. "There's not the makin' of a whole man among you," he resumed. "You stand still while three men do up two, when, if you had any nerve, Mr. —— Breen, here, might be aft, 'stead o' eatin' cracker-hash with a lot o' dock-rats and beach-combers. He's had better playmates; so 've I, for that matter, o' late years."
"Johnson, keep still," said the other. "It doesn't matter what we have had, who we were or might be. We're before the mast, bound for Hong-Kong. We may find a consul at Anjer; I'm not sure. Meanwhile, I'm Breen, and you are Johnson, and it is no one's business what we have been. I'm not anxious for this matter to become public. I can explain to the department, and no one else need know."
"Very good, sir."
"No; not 'sir.' Keep that for our superiors."
Johnson grumbled a little; then Mr. Hansen's round Swedish face appeared at the door.
"Hi, you in dere—you big feller—you come out. You belong in der utter watch. You hear? You come out on deck," he called.
"Aye, aye, sir," said Johnson, rising sullenly.
"All the better, Johnson," whispered Breen. "One can keep a lookout all the time. Keep your eyes open and your mouth shut."
So for these two men the work of the voyage began. The hard-headed, aggressive Johnson, placed in the mate's watch, had no trouble in finding his place, and keeping it, at the top of the class. He ruled the assorted types of all nations, who worked and slept with him, with sound logic backed by a strong arm and hard fist, never trying to conceal his contempt for them.
"You mixed nest o' mongrels," he would say, at the end of some petty squabble which he had settled for them, "why don't you stay in your own country ships? Or, if you must sign in American craft, try to feel and act like Americans. It's just this same yawping at one another in the forecastles that makes it easy for the buckoes aft to hunt you. And that's why you get your berths. No skipper 'll ship an American sailor while there's a Dutchman left in the shippin'-office. He wouldn't think it safe to go to sea with too many American sailors forward to call him down and make him treat 'em decent. He picks a Dago here, and a Dutchman there, and all the Sou'wegians he sees, and fills in with the rakin's and scrapin's o' Hell, Bedlam, and Newgate, knowin' they'll hate one another worse than they hate him, and never stand together."
To which they would respond in kind, though of lesser degree, always yielding him the last word when he spoke it loud enough.
But Breen, in the second mate's watch, had trouble with his fellows at first. They could not understand his quiet, gentlemanly demeanor, mistaking it for fear of them; so, unknown to Johnson, for he would not complain, they subjected him to all the petty annoyances which ignorance may inflict upon intelligence. Though he showed a theoretical knowledge of ships and the sea superior to any they had met with, he was not their equal in the practical work of a sailor. He was awkward at pulling ropes with others, placing his hands in the wrong place and mixing them up in what must be a concerted pull to be effective. His hands, unused to labor, became blistered and sore, and he often, unconsciously perhaps, held back from a task, to save himself from pain. He was an indifferent helmsman, and off Hatteras, in a blow, was sent from the wheel in disgrace. He did not know the ropes, and made sad mistakes until he had mastered the lesson. He could box the compass, in his own way; for instance, the quarter-points between north-northeast and northeast by north he persisted in naming from the first of these points instead of from the other, as was seamanlike and proper; and the same with the corresponding sectors in the other quadrants. Once, at the wheel, when the ship was heading southeast by south half-south, he had been asked the course, and answered: "South-southeast half-east, sir." For this he was profanely admonished by the captain and ridiculed by the men. Johnson had made the same mistake, but corrected himself in time, and nothing was said about it; but Breen was bullied and badgered in the watch below,—the lubberly nomenclature becoming a byword of derision and contempt,—until, patience leaving him, he doubled his sore fingers into fists one dog-watch, and thrashed the Irishman—his most unforgiving critic—so quickly, thoroughly, and scientifically that persecution ceased; for the Irishman had been the master spirit of the port forecastle.
But the captain and mates were not won over. Practical Johnson—an able seaman from crown to toe—knew how to avoid or forestall their abuse; but Breen did not. The very presence of such a man as he before the mast was a continuous menace,—an insult to their artificial superiority,—and they assailed him at each mistake with volleys of billingsgate that brought a flush to his fine face and tears to his eyes; later, a deadly paleness that would have been a warning to tyrants of better discrimination. Once again, while being rebuked in this manner, his self-control left him. With white face and blazing eyes he darted at Mr. Knapp, and had almost repeated Johnson's feat on the poop when an iron belaying-pin in the hands of the captain descended upon him and broke his left arm. Mr. Knapp's fists and boots completed his tutelage, and he was carried to his bunk with another lesson learned. Johnson, swearing the while, skilfully set the broken bones and made a sling; then, by tactful wheedling of the steward, secured certain necessaries from the medicine-chest, with hot water from the galley; but open assistance was refused by the captain.
Breen, scarcely able to move, held to his bunk for a few days; then, the first mild skirts of the trade-wind being reached, the mate drove him to the wheel, to steer one-handed through the day, while all hands (in the afternoon) worked in the rigging. But the trade-wind freshened, and his strength was not equal to the task set for it. With the men all aloft and the two mates forward, the ship nearly broached to one day, and only the opportune arrival of Captain Bacon on deck saved the spars. He seized the wheel, ground it up, and the ship paid off; then a whole man was called to relieve him, and the incompetent helmsman was promptly and properly punished. He was kicked off the poop, and his arm, as a consequence, needed resetting.
Johnson had been aloft, but there was murder in his dark eyes when he came down at supper-time. Yet he knew its futility, and while bandaging the broken arm earnestly explained, as Breen's groans would allow, that if he killed one the other two would kill him, and nothing would be gained. "For they've brass knuckles in their pockets, sir," he said, "and pistols under their pillows. We haven't even sheath-knives, and the crew wouldn't help."
Whereupon, an inspired Russian Finn of the watch remarked: "If a man know his work an' do his work, an' gif no back lip to te mates, he get no trupple mit te mates. In my country ships——" The dissertation was not finished. Johnson silently knocked him down, and the incident closed.
But they found work which the crippled man could do, after a short "lying up." With the steward's washboard, he could wash the captain's soiled linen, which the steward would afterward wring out and hang up. He refused at first, but was duly persuaded, and went to work in the lee scuppers amidships. Johnson made a detour on his way to the main-rigging, and muttered: "Say the word, sir, and I 'll chance it. No jury'd convict."
"No, no; go aloft, Johnson. I'm all right," answered Breen, as he bent over the distasteful task.
Johnson climbed the rigging to the main-royalyard, which he was to scrape for reoiling, and had no sooner reached it than he sang out:
"Sail oh! Dead ahead, sir. Looks like an armored cruiser o' the first class."
"Armored cruiser o' the first class?" muttered the captain, as he carried his binoculars to the weather rail and looked ahead. "More 'n I can make out with the glasses."
If three funnels, two masts, two bridges, and two sets of fighting-tops indicate an armored cruiser of the first class, Johnson was right. These the oncoming craft showed plainly even at seven miles' distance. Fifteen minutes later she was storming by, a half-mile to windward; a beautiful picture, long and white, with an incurving ram-bow, with buff-colored turrets and superstructure, and black guns bristling from all parts of her. The Stars and Stripes flew from the flagstaff at the stern; white-clad men swarmed about her decks, and one of them, on the forward bridge, close to a group of officers, was waving by its staff a small red-and-white flag. Captain Bacon brought out the American ensign, and with his own hands hoisted it to the monkey-gaff on the mizzen, dipped it three times in respectful salute, and left it at the gaff-end. Then he looked at the cruiser, as every man on board was doing except the man washing clothes in the lee scuppers. His business was to wash clothes, not to cross a broad deck and climb a high rail to look at passing craft; but, as he washed away, he looked furtively aloft, with eyes that sparkled, at the man on the mainroyalyard. Johnson was standing erect on the small spar, holding on with his left hand to the royal-pole,—certainly the most conspicuous detail of the whole ship to the eyes of those on board the cruiser,—and with his right hand he was waving his cap to the right and left, and up and down. There was method in his motions, for when he would cease, the small red-and-white flag on the cruiser's bridge would answer, waving to the right and left, and up and down.
A secondary gun spoke from a midship sponson, and Captain Bacon exclaimed enthusiastically, "Salutin' the flag," and again dipped his ensign. Then, after an interval, during which it became apparent that the cruiser had altered her course to cross the ship's stern, there was seen another tongue of flame and cloud of smoke, and something seemed to rush through the air ahead of the ship. But it was a splash of water far off on the lee bow which really apprised them that the gun was shotted. At the same time a string of small flags arose to the signal-yard, and when Captain Bacon had found this combination in his code-book, he read with amazement: "Heave to or take the consequences." By this time the cruiser was squarely across his wake, most certainly rounding to for an interview.
"Heave to or take the consequences!" he exclaimed. "And he's firin' on us. Down from aloft, all hands!" he roared upward; then he seized the answering pennant from the flag-locker and displayed it from the rail, begrudging the time needful to hoist it. The men were sliding to the deck on backstays and running-gear, and the mates were throwing down coils of rope from the belaying-pins.
"Man both main clue-garnets, some o' you!" yelled the captain. "Clue up! Weather main-braces, the rest o' you! Slack away to looward! Round wi' the yards, you farmers—round wi' 'em! Down wi' the wheel, there! Bring her up three points and hold her. H—l an' blazes, what's he firin' on me for?"
Excitedly, the men obeyed him; they were not used to gun fire, and it is certainly exciting to be shot at. Conspicuous among them was Johnson, who pulled and hauled lustily, shouting exuberantly the formless calls which sailors use in pulling ropes, and smiling sardonically. In five minutes from the time of the second gun the yards were backed, and, with weather leeches trembling, the ship lay "hove to," drifting bodily to leeward. The cruiser had stopped her headway, and a boat had left her side. There were ten men at the oars, a cockswain at the yoke-ropes, and with him in the stern-sheets a young man in an ensign's uniform, who lifted his voice as the boat neared the lee quarter, and shouted: "Rig a side-ladder aboard that ship!"
He was hardly more than a boy, but he was obeyed; not only the side-ladder, but the gangway steps were rigged; and leaving the cockswain and bow oarsman to care for the boat, the young officer climbed aboard, followed by the rest—nine muscular man-of-war's-men, each armed with cutlass and pistol, one of them carrying a hand-bag, another a bundle. Captain Bacon, as became his position, remained upon the poop to receive his visitor, while the two mates stood at the main fife-rail, and the ship's crew clustered forward. Johnson, alert and attentive, stood a little in the van, and the man in the lee scuppers still washed clothes.
"What's the matter, young man?" asked the captain from the break of the poop, with as much of dignity as his recent agitation would permit. "Why do you stop my ship on the high seas and board her with an armed boat's crew?"
"You have an officer and seaman of the navy on board this ship," answered the ensign, who had been looking about irresolutely. "Produce them at once, if you please."
"What—what——" stuttered the captain, descending the poop steps; but before more was said there was a sound from forward as of something hard striking something heavy, and as they looked, they saw Captain Bacon's bucket of clothes sailing diagonally over the lee rail, scattering a fountain of soapy water as it whirled; his late laundryman coming toward them with head erect, as though he might have owned the ship and himself; and Johnson, limping slightly, making for the crowd of blue-jackets at the gangway. With these he fraternized at once, telling them things in a low voice, and somewhat profanely, while the two mates at the fife-rail eyed him reprovingly, but did not interrupt.
Breen advanced to the ensign, and said, as he extended his hand: "I am Lieutenant Breen. Did you bring the clothing? This is an extremely fortunate meeting for me; but I can thank you—you and your brother officers—much more gracefully aboard the cruiser."
The officer took the extended hand gingerly, with suspicion in his eyes. Perhaps, if it had not been thoroughly clean from its late friction with soap and water, he might have declined taking it; for there was nothing in the appearance of the haggard, ragged wreck before him to indicate the naval officer.
"There is some mistake," he said coldly. "I am well acquainted with Lieutenant Breen, and you are certainly not he."
Breen's face flushed hotly, but before he could reply, the captain broke in.
"Some mistake, hey?" said he, derisively. "I guess there is—another mistake—another bluff that don't go. Get out o' here; and I tell you now, blast yer hide, that if you make me any more trouble 'board my ship yer liable to go over the side feet first, with a shackle to yer heels. And you, young man," he stormed, turning to the ensign, "you look round, if you like. There's my crew. All the navy officers you find you can have, and welcome to 'em." He turned his back, stamped a few paces along the deck, and returned, working himself into a fury.
Breen had not moved, but, with a slight sparkle to his eyes, said to the young officer:
"I think, sir, that if you take the trouble to investigate, you will be satisfied. There are two Breens in the navy. You know one, evidently; I am the other. Lieutenant William Breen is on shore duty at Washington, I think. Lieutenant John Breen, lately in command of the torpedo-boat
Wainwright, with his signalman Thomas Johnson, are shanghaied on board this ship. There is Johnson talking to your men."
The young man's face changed, and his hand went to his cap in salute; but the mischief was done. Captain Bacon's indignation was at bursting-pressure, and his mind in no condition to respond readily to new impressions. He was captain of the ship, and grossly affronted. Johnson, noting his purple face, wisely reached for a topsail-brace belaying-pin, and stepped toward him; for he now towered over Breen, cursing with volcanic energy.
"Didn't I tell you to go forrard?" he roared, drawing back his powerful fist.
Breen stood his ground; the officer raised his hand and half drew his sword, while the blue-jackets sprang forward; but it was Johnson's belaying-pin which stopped that mighty fist in mid-passage. It was an iron club, eighteen inches long by an inch and a half diameter; and Johnson, strong man though he was, used it two-handed. It struck the brawny forearm just above the wrist with a crashing sound, and seemed to sink in. Captain Bacon almost fell, but recovered his balance, and, holding the broken bones together, staggered toward the booby-hatch for support. He groaned in pain, but did not curse; for it requires a modicum of self-respect for this, and Captain Bacon's self-respect was completely shocked out of him.
But Mr. Knapp and Mr. Hansen still respected themselves, and were coming.
"You keep back, there—you two," yelled Johnson, excitedly. "Stand by here, mates. These buckoes 'll kill someone yet. Look out for their brass knuckles and guns."
And the two officers halted. They had no desire to assert themselves before nine scowling, armed men, an angry and aggressive mutineer with a belaying-pin, and a rather confused, but wakening, young officer with drawn sword. Johnson backed toward the latter.
"Don't you know me, Mr. Bronson," he said—"Tom Johnson, cocks'n o' the gig on your practice-cruise? 'Member me, sir? This is Lieutenant Breen—take my word, sir."
"Yes—yes—I understand," said the ensign, with a face redder than Breen's had been. "I really beg your pardon, Mr. Breen. It was inexcusable in me, I know—but—I had expected to see a different face, and—and—we're three months out from Hong-Kong, you see——"
Breen smiled, and interrupted with a gesture.
"No time for explanations, Mr. Bronson," said he, kindly. "Did you bring the clothes? Thoughtful of Johnson to ask for them, wasn't it? It really would be embarrassing to join your ship in this rig. In the grip and bundle? All right. Form your men across the deck, please, forward of the cabin. Keep these brutes away from us while we change. Come, Johnson."
Taking the hand-bag and the bundle, they brazenly entered the cabin by the forward door. In ten minutes they emerged, Johnson clad in the blue rig of a man-of-war's-man, Breen in the undress uniform of an officer, his crippled arm buttoned into the coat. As they stepped toward the gangway, Captain Bacon, pale and perspiring, wheezing painfully, entered the cabin and passed out of their lives. The steward followed at his heels, and the two mates, with curiously working faces, approached Breen.
"Excuse me, sir," said Mr. Knapp, "but I want to say that I had no notion o' this at all; and I hope you won't make no trouble for me ashore."
Breen, one foot on the steps while he waited for the blue-jackets to file over the side, eyed him thoughtfully.
"No," he said slowly. "I hardly think, Mr. Knapp, that I shall exert myself to make trouble for you personally, or for the other two. There is a measure now before Congress which, if it passes, will legislate brutes like you and your captain off the American quarter-deck by its educational conditions. This, with a consideration for your owners, is what permits you to continue this voyage, instead of going back to the United States in irons. But if I had the power," he added, looking at the beautiful flag still flying at the gaff, "I would lower that ensign, and forbid you to hoist it. It is the flag of a free country, and should not float over slave-ships."
He mounted the steps, and, assisted by the young officer and Johnson, descended to the boat; but before Johnson went down, he peered over the rail at the two mates, grinning luridly.
"And I'll promise you," he said, "that I'm always willing to make trouble for you, ashore or afloat, and wish I had a little more time for it now. And you can tell your skipper, if you like, in case he don't know it, that he got smashed with the same club that he used on Mr. Breen, and I'm only d——d sorry I didn't bring it down on his head. So long, you bloody-minded hell-drivers. See you again some day."
He descended, and Mr. Knapp gave the order to brace the yards.
"Give a good deal," he mused, as the men manned the braces, "to know just how they got news to that cruiser. Homeward bound from Hong-Kong—three months out. Couldn't ha' been sent after us."
But he never learned.