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 plenty forward?"
"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 jail."
"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 tarpaulin."
"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 of."
"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 service.
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 found."
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 something for.
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 cried--
"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 wailfully 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 incriminate you."
"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 wheelhouse."
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 ever-they-were."
"Well, act on my advice again," cried the infuriated Cupples, "and go to--the hold."
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 Stowaway."