Wolves of the Sea by Randall Parrish
Chapter II. The Prison Ship
The greater portion of that voyage I would blot entirely from memory if possible. I cannot hope to describe it in any detail---the foul smells, the discomfort, the ceaseless horror of food, the close companionship of men turned into mere animals by suffering and distress, the wearisome days, the black, sleepless nights, the poisonous air, and the brutality of guards. I can never forget these things, for they have scarred my soul, yet surely I need not dwell upon them now, except as they may bear some direct reference to this tale I seek to tell. As such those weeks cannot be wholly ignored, for they form a part of the events to follow--events which might not be clearly understood without their proper picturing.
We were fifty-three days at sea, driven once so far to the southward by a severe storm, which struck us the second day out, as to sight the north coast of Africa before we were able to resume our westward course. To those of us who were tightly shut into those miserable quarters below these facts came only as floating rumors, yet the intense suffering involved was all real enough. For forty-two hours we were battened down in darkness, flung desperately about by every mad plunge of the vessel, stifled by poisoned air and noxious odors, and all that time without a particle of food. If I suffered less than some others it was simply because I was more accustomed to the sea. I was not nauseated by the motion, nor unduly frightened by the wild pitching of the brig. Lying quietly in my berth, braced to prevent being thrown out, amid a darkness so intense as to seem a weight, every sound from the deck above, every lift of the vessel, brought to my mind a sea message, convincing me of two things--that the Romping Betsy was a staunch craft, and well handled. Terrific as the gale became I only grew more confident that she would safely weather it.
Yet God knows it was horrible enough even to lie there and listen, to feel the hurling plunges downward, the dizzy upsweeping of the hull; to hear the cries, groans and prayers of frightened men, unseen and helpless in the darkness, the creaking timbers, the resounding blows of the waves against the sides, the horrid retching of the sick, the snarling, angry voices as the struggling mass was flung back and forth, the curses hurled madly into the darkness. They were no longer men, but infuriated brutes, so steeped in agony and fear as to have lost all human instincts. They snarled and snapped like so many beasts, their voices unrecognizable, the stronger treading the weaker to the deck. I could not see, I could only hear, yet I lay there, staring blindly about, conscious of every horror, and so weak and unnerved as to tremble like a child.
Yet the complete knowledge of what had actually occurred in that frightful hole was only revealed when the violence of the storm finally ceased, and the guards above again lifted the hatch. The gray light of dawn faintly illumined the inferno below, and the sweet breath of morning air swept down among us. Then I saw the haggard, uplifted faces, the arms tossed aloft, and heard the wild yell as the stronger charged forward struggling for the foot of the ladder. The place was a foul, reeking shambles, so filthy as to be positively sickening, with motionless bodies stretched here and there along the deck. Sailors and guards fought their way down among us, driving back the unarmed wretches who sought to oppose their progress, while others bore to the deck above those who were too helpless to rise. There were five dead among them, and twice as many more who had lost consciousness. These were all removed first and then, feeling helpless to resist the rush, the others were permitted to clamber up the ladder. Surging out upon the deck, we were hurdled against the lee rail, menaced by leveled guns, and thus finally fed, while the filthy quarters below were hastily cleansed.
It was a dark, lowering morning, the desolate sea still threateningly rough, the heavy clouds hanging low. The Romping Betsy was hove to, under bare poles, a bit of the jib alone showing, with decks and spars exhibiting evidence of the terrific struggle to keep afloat. I never witnessed wilder pitching on any vessel, but the fresh air brought new life to the wretches about me, and a species of cheerfulness was quickly manifested. Bad as the food was we ate it gladly, nor did the memory of the dead, already laid out on the main deck, long depress us. Why should we mourn for them? We scarcely knew any among them by name, and, facing the uncertainty of our own fate, each man secretly felt that these had possibly found the easier way. Our own misery was now greater than theirs. So we hung on to whatever would help us to keep erect, and ate the food given us like famished animals. Rough and threatening as the surroundings still were, I was seaman enough to realize that the backbone of the storm had broken, and so rejoiced when the skipper ordered sail set. In a few moments the brig was once again headed on a westerly course, and riding the heavy seas much more steadily.
We were permitted to remain on deck scarcely more than an hour, and during that time only a very few passengers made their appearance aft. Although watching eagerly I perceived no flutter of a skirt in the wind, but the Spanish looking man emerged from below, and clung to the rail for several minutes before we were ordered from deck. He spoke with the Captain, pointing and gesticulating, and the few detached words blown to me on the wind were sufficient to convince me that the fellow knew ships and the sea. I had thought him a mere dandy, but now saw in him harder stuff, even getting close enough to learn that he had visited America before, and possessed knowledge of its shores and currents. Ay, and he spoke English well, with never pause for a word, even to terms of seamanship a bit obscure.
The next few days, while uneventful, sufficed to make our discipline complete, obedience being roughly enforced by blows and oaths. At first a spirit of resistance flamed high, but the truly desperate among us were few, and without leadership, while the majority were already thoroughly cowed by months of imprisonment. Left to themselves the more reckless and criminal were soon obliged to yield to force, so that nothing more serious resulted than loud talk and threats. The hatch above remained open, but carefully guarded night and day, while we were permitted on deck for air and exercise only in squads of ten, two hours out of every twenty-four. This alone served to break the dread monotony of the voyage, for while we almost constantly encountered baffling head winds, no other storm of any magnitude obstructed our passage. The brig carried heavy canvas, and the skipper loaded her with all she could bear, but at that she was a slow sailor, dipping so deeply in a seaway as to ship considerable water even in quiet weather. From our exercise on deck we generally returned below drenched to the skin, but glad to even pay that price for two hours of fresh air, and an opportunity to gaze about at sea and sky. There was little else to witness, for in all the long voyage we encountered but one vessel in that desolate ocean, a French armed corvette, fairly bristling with guns, which ran in close enough to hail us, but seemed satisfied to permit us to pass unvisited. I clung to the rail and watched its white sails disappear until they resembled the wings of gulls, feeling more than ever conscious of our helplessness. There were few among the prisoners I had any desire to companion with--only two, as I recall now--a law clerk from Sussex, a rather bright young fellow, but full of strange notions, and an older man, who had seen service in Flanders. We messed together, and pledged mutual friendship in the new land, a pledge not destined to be fulfilled, as I never again saw nor heard of the former after we went ashore, and the last glimpse I had of the older man was as he was being loaded into a cart bound for some interior plantation. God grant they both lived, and became again free men.
How those sodden hours and days dragged! How long were those black nights, in which I lay sleepless, listening to indescribable noises, and breathing the rank, poisonous air. The short time passed on deck was my only solace, and yet even there I found little to interest, except a continuous new hope. We were herded well forward, a rope dividing us from the main deck, which space the passengers aft used as a promenade. Here, between the foremast and the cabin, someone was strolling idly about most of the time, or lounging along the rail out of the sun. In time I came to recognize them all by sight, and learned, in one way or another, something of their characteristics, and purpose in taking this voyage. They were not an unusual lot, the majority planters from the Colonies homeward bound, with occasionally a new emigrant about to try for fortune beyond seas, together with one or two naval officers. There were only three women aboard, a fat dowager, the young lady I had noticed at embarkation, and her colored maid. Many of the days were pleasant, with quiet sea and bright sunshine, and the younger woman must have passed hours on deck during so long and tedious a voyage. Yet it chanced I saw almost nothing of her. I heard her presence on board discussed several times by others of our company, but it somehow chanced that during my time in the open she was usually below. Indeed I gained but one glimpse of the lady in the first two weeks at sea, and then only as we were being ordered down to our quarters for the night. Just as I was approaching the hatch to descend, she appeared from within the cabin, accompanied by the middle-aged planter, and the two advanced toward the rail. The younger gallant, who was standing there alone, saw them the moment they emerged, and hastened forward, bowing low, hat in hand. She barely recognized him, her gaze traveling beyond the fellow toward the disappearing line of prisoners. It was an evening promising storm, with some motion to the sea, and a heavy bank of clouds visible off the port quarter, brightened by flashes of zigzag lightning. The brig rolled dizzily, so the cavalier sought to steady her steps, but she only laughed at the effort, waving him aside, as she moved easily forward. Once with hand on the rail, she ignored his presence entirely, looking first at the threatening cloud, and then permitting her gaze to rest once more upon the line of men descending through the hatch.
It had become my turn to go down, yet in that instant our eyes met fairly, and I instantly knew she saw and recognized me. For a single second our glances clung, as though some mysterious influence held us to each other--then the angry guard struck me with the stock of his piece.
"What er ye standin' thar fer?" he demanded savagely. "Go on down--lively now."
I saw her clasping fingers convulsively grip the rail, and, even at that distance, marked a sudden flame of color in her cheeks. That was all her message to me, yet quite enough. Although we had never spoken, although our names were yet unknown, I was no criminal to her mind, no unrecognized prisoner beneath contempt, but a human being in whom she already felt a personal interest, and to whom she extended thought and sympathy. The blow of the gun-stock bruised my back, yet it was with a smile and a light heart that I descended the ladder, deeply conscious of a friend on board--one totally unable to serve me, perhaps, yet nevertheless a friend. Even in our isolation, guarded in those narrow quarters, much of the ship gossip managed in some way to reach our ears. How it drifted in was often a mystery, yet there was little going on aboard we failed to hear. Much of it came to us through those detailed to serve food, while guards and sailors were not always averse to being talked with. We always knew the ship's course, and I managed to keep in my mind a very dear idea of how the voyage progressed. Not a great deal of this gossip, however, related to the passengers aft, who kept rather exclusively to themselves, nor did I feel inclined to question those who might have the information. I had no wish to reveal my interest to others, and so continued entirely ignorant of the identity of the young woman. She remained in my memory, in my thoughts nameless, a dream rather than a reality. I did learn quite by accident that the gay gallant was a wealthy Spaniard, supposedly of high birth, by name Sanchez, and at one time in the naval service, and likewise ascertained that the rotund planter, so evidently in the party, was a certain Roger Fairfax, of Saint Mary's in Maryland, homeward bound after a successful sale of his tobacco crop in London. It was during his visit to the great city that he had met Sanchez, and his praise of the Colonies had induced the latter to essay a voyage in his company to America. But strange enough no one so much as mentioned the girl in connection with either man.
Thus it was that the Romping Betsy drove steadily on her way into the west, either battered by storm, or idly drifting in calm, while life on board became a tiresome routine. The dullness and ill treatment led to trouble below, to dissatisfaction and angry outbreaks of temper. The prisoners grew quarrelsome among themselves, and mutinous toward their guards. I took no part in these affairs, which at one time became serious. Two men were shot dead, and twice afterwards bodies were carried up the ladder at dawn, and silently consigned to the sea. No doubt these tales, more or less exaggerated, traveled aft, and reached the eager ears of the passengers. They began to fear us, and consequently I noticed when on deck the promenade once so popular during the earlier days of the voyage, was almost totally deserted during our hours of recreation. So, with mutiny forward, and fear aft, the lumbering old brig, full of tragedy and hopeless hearts, ploughed steadily onward toward the sunset.