It has been my lot, in the course of a fairly comprehensive experience of sea-life in most capacities between lamp-trimmer and chief officer, to serve under some queer commanders, but of all that I ever endured, the worthy of whom I am about to tell was, without doubt, the most amazing specimen.
I have been told, on good authority, that the tag about fact being stranger than fiction is all bosh, but for once I am going to disregard that statement. No fiction that I have ever read has told me anything half so strange, in my poor judgment, as the career of Captain Jones during the time that I was unfortunate enough to be his mate, and therefore I shall stick to fact, at least as much of it as I can tell that will be fit for publication.
In order to launch my story fairly it is necessary to go back a little. On my return to London from my last voyage, with a pay-day of some £20, I had done two important things, though with the easy confidence of youth, and especially seafaring youth, their gravity had not impressed me. I got married and “passed” for chief mate. Neither my wife nor myself had a friend in the world, any certain employment or a stick of “plenishing.” And after a honeymoon of a day or two the tiny group of sovereigns nestling at the bottom of my right-hand trousers pocket dwindled so that I could hardly jingle them. There were plenty of ships in London at the time, but although I walked the soles fairly off my boots around the dreary docks never a one could I find where a second mate even was wanted. I found a good many where the officers were foreigners; Germans or Scandinavians; still more “where they didn’t keep the officers by the ship in dock,” and one day I was offered a chance to go first mate of a 1500 ton tramp to the Baltic at £5 a month! In spite of the shameful inadequacy of the salary I rushed off to the Surrey Commercial Docks after the berth, and arrived on board of her breathless, only to find that another man had got to windward of me, having earlier information. Sadly I trudged back again and recommenced my search, my funds all but gone and no credit obtainable. But now I couldn’t even get a ship before the mast! Gangs of ruffianly dock-wallopers fought like tigers at the “chain-locker,” whenever a skipper seeking a hand or two poked his head out of one of the doors, flourishing their discharges (?) in the air as they surged around the half-scared man. Anxious and indeed almost despairing as I was, I could not compete with that crowd, and I don’t believe I should ever have got a ship, but that one day a stalwart, pleasant-faced man opened the door. When the gang began to mob him he roared, “I don’ want navvies—I want a sailor-man: git t’ hell out o’ that, and let one o’ them behind ye come here.” Instantly I flung myself into the crowd and thrust my way up to him. He took my proffered discharge, but handed it back at once saying, “I don’t want no steamboat sailors.” He didn’t understand the thing, being a Nova Scotiaman. I screamed back the truth at him, and pushed my way past him into the office, my heart fairly thumping with excitement at the prospect of £3 a month to go to Nova Scotia in the middle of winter. I winced a little when I found that she was only a brigantine, but the advance note for £3 was such a godsend that I could only be thankful.
Of the passage across in the Wanderer I need say nothing here except that the sea kindliness of the little craft (the smallest I had ever sailed in) amazed me, while, except for a disaster in the shape of a cook, the general conditions of life on board were most comfortable. After twenty days we arrived at Sydney, Cape Breton, and upon entering the harbour noticed a vessel lying disconsolately apart from the little fleet at anchor there. She was a brig belonging to Workington, exactly like an exaggerated barge as to her hull, and bearing all over unmistakable evidences of utter neglect. In fact her general appearance suggested nothing so much to me as the nondescript craft common on the Indian coast, and called by sailors “country-wallahs.” She provided us with plenty of material for our evening chat, but in the morning other matters claimed our attention and we soon forgot all about her. As we had come over in ballast our stay was to be short, and on the second day after our arrival news came that we were to proceed to Lingan, a small port down the coast, in the morning, and there load soft coal for St. John, New Brunswick. But, much to my surprise, just after supper, as I was leaning over the rail enjoying my pipe, the mate approached me mysteriously and beckoned me aft. As soon as we were out of hearing of the other men, he told me that if I liked to put my dunnage over into the boat, he would pull me ashore, the skipper having intimated his willingness to let me go, although unable to discharge me in the regular way. He had heard that there was a vessel in the harbour in want of a mate, and hoped that thus I might be able to better myself. Being quite accustomed to all vicissitudes of fortune I at once closed with the offer, and presently found myself on the beach of this strange place without one cent in my pocket, in utter darkness and a loneliness like that of some desert island.
I sat quite still for some little time, trying to sum up the situation, but the night being very cold, I had to move or get benumbed. Leaving my bag and bed where it was I groped my way into the town, and after about a quarter of an hour’s stumbling along what I afterwards found was the main street, I saw a feeble light. Making for it at once I discovered a man standing at the door of a lowly shanty smoking, the light I had seen proceeding from a tallow candle flickering in the interior. Receiving my salutation with gruff heartiness the man bade me welcome to such shelter as he had, so I lugged my dunnage up and entered. He showed me an ancient squab whereon I might lie, and closing the street door bade me good night, disappearing into some mysterious recess in a far corner. I composed myself for sleep, but the place was simply alive with fleas, which, tasting fresh stranger, gave me a lively time. Before morning I was bitterly envious of the other occupant of the room, who lay on the bare floor in a drunken stupor, impervious to either cold or vermin. At the first gleam of dawn I left, taking a brisk walk until somebody was astir in the place, when I soon got quarters in a boarding-house. Then as early as possible I made for the shipping office, finding to my surprise that the vessel in want of a mate was the ancient relic that had so much amused us as we entered the harbour. After a good deal of searching, the commander of her was found—a bluff, red-faced man with a watery, wandering eye, whose him for a Welshman. He was as anxious to get a mate as I was to get a ship, so we were not long coming to terms—£6 per month. Her name I found was the Amulet, last from Santos, and now awaiting a cargo of coal for St. John, New Brunswick. No sooner had I signed articles than the skipper invited me to drink with him, and instantly became confidential. But as he had already been drinking pretty freely, and even his sober English was no great things, I was not much the wiser for our conference. However, bidding him good day, I went on board and took charge, finding the old rattletrap in a most miserable condition, the second mate in a state of mutiny, and the crew doing just whatever they pleased. I had not been on board an hour before I was in possession of the history of their adventures since leaving England eighteen months before. I found too that I was the fourth mate that voyage, and judging from appearances I thought it unlikely that I should be the last. As soon as he had finished unburdening himself to me, the second mate, who seemed a decent fellow enough, started to pack up, swearing in both Welsh and English that he was finished with her. Of course I had no means of preventing him from going even if I had wished to do so, and away he went. Then I turned my attention to the ship, finding the small crew (seven all told) desperately sullen, but still willing to obey my orders. Oh, but she was a wreck, and so dirty that I hardly knew whether it was worth while attempting to cleanse her. There was abundance of good fresh food though, and one of the men helped the grimy muttering Welsh lad who was supposed to be the cook, so that the meals were at least eatable. According to my orders I was to report progress to the skipper every morning at his hotel, and next morning I paid him a visit. I found him in bed, although it was eleven o’clock, with a bottle of brandy sticking out from under his pillow and quite comfortably drunk. He received my remarks with great gravity, graciously approving of what I had done, and assuring me that he was very ill indeed. I left him so, thinking deeply over my queer position, and returned on board to find the second mate back again in a furious rage at not being able to get at the “old man,” but resigned to going with us to St. John as a passenger. Well, as time went on I managed to get her in some sort of trim, received the cargo on board, bent the sails, and made all ready for sea, the second mate lolling at his ease all day long or in his bunk asleep. Every morning I saw the skipper, always in bed and always drunk. Thus three weeks passed away. When the vessel had been a week ready for sea, during most of which time a steady fair wind for our departure had been blowing, I had a visitor. After a few civil questions he told me he was the agent, and proposed giving the captain one day longer in which to clear out, failing which he would on his own responsibility send the vessel to sea without him. I of course raised no objection, but seized the opportunity to get a few pounds advance of wages which I at once despatched home to my wife. The agent’s threat was effectual, for at noon the next day my commander came on board accompanied by a tugboat which towed us out to sea, although a fair wind was blowing. No sooner had the pilot left us to our own devices than Captain Jones retired to his bunk, and there he remained, his cabin no bad representation of a miniature Malebolge. Details impossible.
Unfortunately I had so severely injured my left hand that I could not use it at all, and the second mate, though perfectly friendly with me, would do nothing but just keep a look-out while I got some sleep; he wouldn’t even trim sail. The first day out I took sights for longitude by the chronometer, which I had kept regularly wound since I had been on board, but I found to my horror that it had been tampered with, and was utterly useless. It was now the latter end of November, fogs and gales were of everyday occurrence, the currents were very strong and variable, and I was on an utterly strange coast in command for the first time in my life. When I saw the sun, which was seldom, I thought myself lucky to get the latitude, and Sable Island under my lee with its diabolical death-traps haunted me waking and sleeping. My only hope of escaping disaster was in the cod-schooners, which, as much at home in those gloomy, stormy waters as a cabman in London streets, could always be relied on to give one a fairly accurate position. Then the rotten gear aloft kept giving out, and there was nothing to repair it with, while the half-frozen men could hardly be kept out of their little dog-hole at all. Only one man in the ship was having a good time, and that was the skipper. Hugging a huge jar of “chain lightning” brandy he never wanted anything else, and no one ever went near him except the poor little scalawag of a cook, who used to rate him in Welsh until the discord was almost deafening. But if I were to tell fairly the story of that trip round Nova Scotia it would take a hundred pages. So I must hurry on to say that we did reach St. John by God’s especial mercy, and laid her alongside the wharf.
I am afraid I shall hardly be believed when I say that Captain Jones reappeared on deck at once and went ashore, promising to return by six o’clock. Now the tide rises and falls in St. John’s over thirty feet, so when night came the Amulet was resting on the mud, and the edge of the wharf was very nearly level with our main-top. I had prepared a secure gangway with a bright lantern for my superior’s return, but about eleven o’clock that night he strolled down and walked calmly over the edge of the wharf where the gangway was not. All hands were aroused by his frantic cries of “Misser Bewlon, Misser Bewlon, for Gaw’ sake safe my lyve!” After much search we found him and hoisted him on board out of the mud in which he was embedded to the armpits. No bones were broken, and next day he was well enough to climb ashore and get into a conveyance which took him up town to another “hotel.” A repetition of the tactics of Sydney now set in, except that I did not visit him so frequently. The second mate and one of the men got their discharge out of him and left us, in great glee at their escape. Then I think some one must have remonstrated with him whose words were not to be made light of, for one day he came on board and tried to get all hands to sign a paper that he had got drawn up, certifying that he was a strictly sober man! He was so hurt at their refusal. Finally he re-embarked, bringing a tugboat and pilot with him as before, and the startling news that we were to tow right across the Bay of Fundy and up the Basin of Minas to Parrsboro’, but no sooner were we abreast of Partridge Island than again my commander disappeared below. All through the night the panting tug toiled onward with us, the pilot remaining at his post till dawn. Fortunately for my peace of mind I knew little about the perilous navigation of this great bay, the home of the fiercest tides in the world. But when, drawing near Cape Blomidon, I saw the rate at which we were being hurled along by the fury of the inrushing flood, I felt profoundly thankful that the responsibility for our safety was not upon me. However, we arrived intact that afternoon and proceeded up the river, which was as crooked as a ram’s horn, and only began to have any water in its bed when it was half flood outside. As we neared the village the pilot asked me to what wharf we were going, as we could not lay in the dry river bed. I knew no more than he did, and neither of us could shake any sense into the unconscious skipper. So we tied her up to the first jetty we came to, and pilot and tugboat took their departure. There was a fine to-do when the wharfinger heard of our arrival, and I had to go up to the village and ask all round for information as to where we were to lie. I got instructions at last, and shifted to a berth where we were allowed to remain. Next day the old man went ashore again, saying nothing to me, and I remained in ignorance of his whereabouts for ten days. Meanwhile lumber began to arrive for us, and a scoundrelly stevedore came on board with the skipper’s authority to stow the cargo. He and I quickly came to loggerheads, for I did not at all fancy the way he was “blowing her up,” and the dread of our winter passage to Europe lay heavy upon me. But I found that all power to interfere with him was taken out of my hands, and I just had to stand by and see potential murder being done.
At last one day at dinner-time the old man paid us a visit, characteristically announcing himself by falling between the vessel and the wharf into the ice-laden water. Of course he wasn’t hurt—didn’t even get a chill, but he was taken back to his “hotel,” and came no more to see us. With the completion of our deck-load my patience was exhausted, and as soon as she was ready for sea, I hunted him up and demanded my discharge. I felt prepared to take all reasonable risks, but to cross the Atlantic in December with a vessel like a top-heavy bladder under me, and myself the sole officer, was hardly good enough. Of course he wouldn’t release me, and the upshot was, to cut my yarn short, that I remained ashore penniless, while he towed back to St. John, engaged another unfortunate mate, and after a week’s final spree, sailed for home. As I had expected, she got no farther than the mouth of the Bay of Fundy. There her old bones were finally broken up in a howling snowstorm, in which several of the crew were frozen to death, but he escaped to worry better men again.
Two years after in the Court of Queen’s Bench we met again, when I arose, the one essential witness to his misdoings, and made him feel as if my turn had come at last.