The Master of the "Chrysolite" by G. B. O'Halloran
Captain Anderson stood alone in the world. But he was one who could stand alone, for his will was strong and his affections were weak. Those who thought they knew him best said he was hardy. The remainder said he was hard, his heart a stone. Still he was a human being, for, like others, he cherished hobbies. His hobbies, however, were not of that class which is compassed about by rest and roses. Instead, they were clothed with a stern delight born of defiance and danger. To work his ship across the Bay in the teeth of an adverse gale; to weather a lee shore; to master a rebellious crew single-handed--these were the wild diversions which satisfied him. Once, in the China seas, his men grew mutinous, said the ship was "leaking like a lobster-pot," and straightway put her about for Singapore; swore they did not care what the skipper thought--in fact, would like to talk to him a bit. The skipper was below when the first mate brought down the news and a very pale face as well.
"Tell the men to muster!"
So soon as the mate's back was turned, John Anderson took a revolver from a locker and charged it; then, ascending the companion-ladder, he walked to the break of the poop, with his hands buried in the pockets of a pea-jacket. Down below him were the men, lolling about in a sullen crowd on the weather side of the quarter-deck. They were thirty or forty in number, and were a vicious-looking set.
"Now then, my men! Half an hour ago we were steering due northeast. Who was it dared to lay the ship's nose the other way?"
The burly boatswain swung his way out of the crowd, planted his foot on the first step of the poop-ladder, and stared up at the captain.
"I did, and be damned to you!" roared he. There was a loud report. The boatswain dropped, shot in the leg. And the crew shivered under a gleaming eye and a gleaming weapon.
"All hands 'bout ship!" cried the master. The wounded boatswain, raising himself for a moment on one hand, piped faintly, and fell back unconscious. But the men were already at their stations, and in five minutes more the Chrysolite was heading northeast again.
Such incidents as these gave John Anderson an unenviable reputation among sailors. It was seldom that the same crew served him twice. Two voyages under this tartar were more than could be stood, and from his subordinates, therefore, he gained nothing but hatred and fear.
It was very difficult, then, to find out where Captain Anderson's weakness lay. Everybody, of course, has his weakness. But this man appeared to be all strength. His whole life seemed like a rod of burnished steel--a passion-proof life, a fire-proof rod. The owners of the Chrysolite, Messrs. Ruin & Ruin, of Billiter Street, piqued themselves on knowing his tender point. He was avaricious, thought they; he would do much for money, and they would some day try him in the furnace. It was true, indeed, that the old sailor had amassed considerable wealth during his frequent voyages to the East. It was true also that he was sparing and saving; that he drove bargains to the verge of perdition, and clinched them at the crucial moment. But it was equally true that he was free from fraud. His teas were what they pretended to be, his silks unimpeachable, and no man ever came back upon him with complaints of their genuineness. The world allowed that he was at least commercially honourable, but felt fully convinced that he was eaten up with the desire for gold.
But the world was wrong. The captain himself was sometimes given to metaphysical speculation, and even he was puzzled to know if his heart had a whit more feeling than any other pumping-engine. Women he looked upon as frivolities of vanity to which he could not reconcile his stern nature; and men he regarded as instruments to be rigorously disciplined, not failing at the same time to discipline himself. His heart was of no use to him except to circulate his blood. In default, therefore, of loving anything, he fell naturally to pursuing a difficult task--the piling up of a mountain of gold. This was congenial solely because it was difficult, and difficulties overcome were his only sources of satisfaction.
Now it happened that a new firm trading to the East, in competition with Messrs. Ruin & Ruin, had made advances to Captain Anderson with a view to engaging him in their service; and as they offered liberal terms, including a handsome percentage, it was not long before the old seaman was won over. Here is a chance, thought he, of heaping up my mountain so much the more quickly, and I am determined that my actions shall not be hampered by sentiment. Notwithstanding this last threat, he found it a very unpleasant thing to break with his old employers, one of whose ships he had commanded for a score of years. But he would get scot-free of them before he finally concluded negotiations with the new people. And so it came to pass that one morning he walked along Billiter Street with his twenty-year-old commission in his pocket.
It is curious how fond real old salts are of dress when ashore. Here was John Anderson in a top-hat and kid gloves, looking anything but at home in them. The glossy hat was a mockery to his bold sea-worn face, and his big knuckles were almost bursting through the soft kid with indignation at the affront put upon them.
He reached the chambers in which the firm of Messrs. Ruin & Ruin was established, and ascended the staircase, for the office was on the second floor. The senior partner was within, and the captain was admitted into his room without delay.
"Glad to see you, Captain Anderson," said Mr. Ruin, in an unusually cordial tone, at the same time shaking hands. "You've made a capital passage, and freighted the Chrysolite well."
Mr. Ruin was a big, fat man who spoke oilily. His clean-shaven face was never without the remnants of a smile--a smile, though, which was not remarkable for its sincerity. Still, it had its value,--in the market,--for it was a commercial smile. A pair of small gray eyes were almost hidden by the obese curves of his cheeks; but you learned in a very short time that they kept a sharp and shrewd lookout from behind those ramparts. The two men sat down at opposite sides of the table, the owner guessing from the captain's manner that there was something in the wind, and the captain thinking his employer's exuberance of civility betokened more than was manifest.
"Yes, I brought her a quick passage," replied Anderson; then, looking straight at the owner, "and it's the last she'll make under me."
The remnants of a smile coalesced, ploughing up Mr. Ruin's cheeks into greasy furrows.
"My dear Captain, we could not hear of it! We're too old friends to part like that."
"Well, sir, I've come this morning, for private reasons, to throw up my commission," said the captain, simultaneously throwing down his commission before the senior partner's eyes.
"I can't accept it, Mr. Anderson; I can't indeed," replied the owner, picking up the parchment. "And I'll tell you why. My brother and I have been thinking matters over, and we've really been obliged to confess, for conscience' sake, that the Chrysolite is getting old."
"Devilish old!" muttered the captain, forgetting himself for a moment.
"Well, now I think of it again, I believe my brother did say she was 'devilish old'--a strange coincidence. Still she is a fine model of a boat. What d' ye think yourself?"
"She has rare lines," said the other, with a slight approach to grave enthusiasm.
"The very remark I made myself only yesterday. Yes, we agreed she was a pretty boat; and I admit, from sheer sentiment, I cannot bear to think of her being chopped up for firewood. So inharmonious, don't you think?"
The old sailor looked sullen and said nothing.
Mr. Ruin leaned his elbows well on to the table in a confidential manner, and reduced his voice to husky whispering.
"My brother told me he should not mind seeing her end her days as a picturesque wreck, but to sell her for match-wood was barbarous. I was really of the same opinion. And--and--couldn't it be managed for her, Captain Anderson?"
The two looked at each other narrowly. "If you can get any one to do it, of course it can be done. But I would sooner--"
"Now before you judge, hear me, Captain. I feel sure you could find that man if you chose. See; the Chrysolite is insured in the Jupiter Insurance Company for nine thousand pounds. Here is the policy. And the man that saves her from the axe, and makes a picturesque wreck of her, will earn the gratitude of Messrs. Ruin & Ruin, and three thousand pounds besides."
For once even the remnants of a smile had disappeared from the senior partner's face, and he stood confessed--the type of a cool financial scoundrel.
The sailor, on the other hand, was agitated as no one had ever seen him before. The veins stood out on his brawny throat like rope; his eyelids were purple; for a few moments his head swam. Then he righted himself as suddenly, with an emphatic refusal ready on his lips. But the wily partner had left the room. This gave Anderson time to think, and the more he thought the more that pile of gold forced itself before him, until, forsooth, he fell to thinking how such an end could be compassed--by another commander. He saw clearly that a skilful seaman might achieve this thing with slight danger to himself and his crew. And all this time the three thousand pounds shone so lustrously that his moral vision was dazzled, and the huge iniquity of the whole affair was rapidly vanishing from sight.
When Mr. Ruin reentered, Anderson was looking ashamed and guilty.
"Well, Captain, can I help you to a conclusion?" came from the oily lips.
"It's this way," replied the old man, turning round, but keeping his eyes fixed on the carpet; "I can't do it. No, I can't."
Mr. Ruin eyed him dubiously, and rubbed his chin gently. "I'm sorry--very, very sorry! Three thousand pounds won't go long begging, though. And I shall have to accept your resignation, Captain."
Anderson only took up his hat and walked slowly out of the room. He had not descended many steps when he turned back and reopened the door.
"No, sir," he said; "it can't be done. I must think it over, and--no--it can't be done." With that he went his way, miserable.
The same night he received a letter by post. It contained his old commission, reinstating him in the command of the Chrysolite.
Four months later the Chrysolite was unloading a general cargo in Mauritius harbour. Captain Anderson had thought it over.
The quay was quickly covered with Manchester bales and Birmingham cases; and it was not long before the tackle at the main-yard arm was set a-clicking, as the baskets of sand ballast were hove up to be poured into the empty hold. No such luxuries were there as steam-winches; not any of those modern appliances for lightening labour. Instead, five or six hands plied the ponderous work at the winch handles, the labour being substantially aggravated by the heat of a vertical sun. A spell at the orthodox hand-winch in the tropics is an ordeal not to be lightly spoken of, and sailors have the very strongest objection to the work. It requires the utmost vigilance on the part of the captain, therefore, to prevent the feebler spirits from deserting. He was able, however, to reckon a full crew as he steered out of Port Louis harbour and shaped his course for Ceylon.
Some of the hands had grumbled at not having more liberty to go ashore. In an excess of passion, Anderson made answer:
"To your kennels, you dogs! I'll put you ashore soon enough, and I'll warrant you'll stay there longer than you care for."
It was indiscreet language, and the men puzzled over it. They concluded that the skipper meant to obtain their imprisonment at the next British port they should touch for mutinous conduct, and, knowing he was a man of his word, they assumed their best behaviour.
Captain Anderson had not changed for the better. Hitherto he had maintained a firmness of discipline boarding upon severity, and he certainly had never relaxed from that attitude. Now he had become an incomprehensible mixture of indulgence and cruelty. The two elements were incompatible, and the more intelligent of his officers were not long in perceiving that there was a vicious and variable wind in their superior's moral atmosphere, under which his canvas strained or flapped unaccountably. They imagined, to pursue their own figure, that his hand did not grasp the reason tiller with its customary grip, and that his bark was left more or less to the conflicting guidance of other influences. Many a time since his departure from England had the old sailor been stung with remorse at the unwritten tenor of his present commission. He would frequently try to look the whole thing in the face--would endeavour to account for the acceptance of an office against which his whole self revolted. He would recite the interview in the Billiter Street chambers with his employer, passing rapidly over the preliminary parts until he came to the reward. No! he was not false enough or euphemistic enough to call it a reward; he would regard it as a bribe. But he could never get further. He always grounded on his reef of gold, and no tide of indignation or regret, no generous current of honour, had power to sweep him off again into the saving waters. Here the fierce rays of desire shot down upon the resplendent heap, whose reflected glory filled the whole vision of the water with its lustre. Blame him not too much, nor it. For, after all, man is but man, and gold is a thing of comfort.
But had Captain Anderson followed his mental inquiries to a conclusion, had he demonstrated to himself the depth of moral degradation into which he must be plunged, his pride would never have allowed him to do anything but redeem his unuttered word.
As an illustration of the captain's lately acquired habit of indulgence, the most remarkable was his treatment of the watch on deck during the night. The man on the lookout, for instance, was in the habit of going to sleep if the weather made it at all practicable. The rest of the watch, some fifteen or twenty hands, followed suit, or even skulked back into the fo'castle, there to stretch themselves out on their chests and smoke. These things the captain connived at, and the men were only too glad of the relief to inquire too curiously into his reasons. The main object of a sailing-ship sailor is to gain as much sleep as he can by whatever means, and in pursuit of this end he will evade even those duties which are most essential to the safety of the ship.
One night, during the middle watch, the captain came on deck, and took to walking up and down with the second mate. The night was clear, though dark. The Chrysolite was close-hauled on the starboard tack, and was making good headway under a clinking breeze. She was an old-fashioned, frigate-built, full-rigged ship, such as one seldom happens on now, her quarter-galleries, chain-plates, to' gallant bulwarks, and single topsail-yards being all out of date among the ship-builders of to-day. It has been said that she had "rare lines," and the remark was just. A more imposing pile of timber was possibly never floated. She had plenty of beam to cope with the South Atlantic wave-giants, and not too much sheer. Her fiddle-stem was gracefully cut, and harmonised to perfection with the slight rake aft of her lofty masts. Her spars, also, were finely proportioned to the breadth of her hull. So that, with her canvas spread in an unwavering breeze, the Chrysolite was a stately creature and "a thing of beauty."
"Mr. Grant," said the captain, addressing his subordinate officer, "be good enough to take a star and work out the ship's position."
The second mate quickly brought his sextant, and took the altitude of a star convenient for his purpose. He then went below to the cabin to perform his calculations. The lookout man, a ready sleeper, was in a heavy slumber, upon which the stiffening breeze made no effect. The rest of the watch had disappeared in the customary fashion. Captain Anderson was practically alone on deck.
He walked forward, leaned over the weather-rail, and directed his glass. He saw just exactly what he expected to see. There, right ahead in the distance, the binoculars showed a long, thin streak of sparkling silver, appearing like a lightning flash held fast between the darkness and the deep sea. It was phosphorescent water playing on a sand-bank.
Anderson put the glass into his pocket. He was sullen and determined. He stood motionless for full half an hour, trying to repress the workings of an aroused conscience; but his thoughts would not let him alone. There was something behind them, some new sensations, which set them buzzing in his mind. These sensations were his finest feelings--ennobling emotions which had been cramped in the grip of discipline for forty years. He could not comprehend it, but he found himself pursuing a train of thoughts of finer sensibility than he had ever experienced, and in which the great bribe had no place. He foreshadowed in his mind's eye the tragic events over which he was now presiding. He foresaw the danger to life and limb with a fresh clearness of vision. He pictured to himself the possible agonies of his fellow-creatures (never once thinking of his own) with a sentiment much akin to pity--strong, too, but not sufficiently strong to overcome that unbending guide which forbade him for honour's sake to go back upon his promise. Then there was the doom of the ship itself--
The man is not angry, much less fearful; but his lips are quivering and his nostrils widening with a passion hitherto unknown. He sees the picture vividly--a majestic, gallant ship done to destruction; a rich, ruined seaman wandering on earth a broken heart in a dishonoured bosom. Not only a gallant ship, but a lifelong pride and the fulness of a heart's desire swept recklessly into limbo. Here, at last, had his love revealed itself.
"No, by God, she shall not perish!"
With a rapid movement he gains the fo'castle, and roars into it, "All hands 'bout ship! Quick now, for your very lives!"
There is no mistaking his tone. It is not one of driving tyranny, but of urgent agony, and it goes right home to every man.
Up they tumble in a ready crowd, many in their shirts alone. They are all sleepy, but the business on hand will soon cure them of this.
They stand by. The helm is put down, and quickly the Chrysolite veers round in process of reaching the other tack. Will she do it? No! She trembles almost in the teeth of the wind, misses stays, and falls off again on to the old tack.
Anderson cannot understand it, old sailor as he is; puts the helm down once more; once more she misses.
"Back the main-yard! Shiver the foreyard!"
Soon every stitch of canvas on the mainmast is swung about to face the breeze, while that on the foremast is hauled in. Although she be going at eight knots, that should check her.
But it does not.
"Mizzen topsail braces, then!" Quick as thought the lee braces are slacked off, and those on the weather side made taut. Still she is not checked. Strange, too, for the breeze is stiff. Anderson feels she is in the stream of a strong current.
There had been no need to say what was the cause of danger. The heavy boom of breakers rose above the tread of feet, the clashing of spars, and the chorus of curses.
Meanwhile Mr. Grant has finished his calculations below. He has found for a result that the ship is among the Maldive reefs. He is certain there must be some error in his work, and he sets himself to revise his figures. But the breeze sweeps into the cabin with a faint command from the upper air--"Back the main-yard!"--and he shrewdly guesses that his calculations are correct.
The captain is everywhere at once, urging and aiding. He sees the whole canvas aback, and yet the Chrysolite drifts on. He cannot 'bout his ship nor back her.
The reef is quite within appreciable distance now. The hands can do nothing more, so they gaze at the dancing line of phosphorescent atoms, and curse tremendously--though these may be their last moments.
"All hands wear ship!" comes sharply from Anderson.
"--you and your orders!" cries some one. "To the boats, to the boats!"
Although the Chrysolite carried five boats, no less than four of them were unseaworthy. In those days the examination of an outward-bound ship was slurred over, with the natural consequence that the marine law was more frequently broken than observed. The only boat on board the Chrysolite worth launching was the life-boat, which stood bottom upward between the main and mizzen masts. At the cry "To the boats!" there was a rush for her. But Anderson is first. He carries in his hand a small axe, meant for clearing away light wreckage. With a vigorous blow the life-boat is stove in. The men stop short, daunted. He turns about and faces them, looking like an angry Titan.
"Now then, you hell-hounds, wear the ship or sink!" They see he means to be master to the end.
It is too late even for imprecation. The men literally spring to their work, with an alacrity begot of desperation. Every moment is of the utmost value, for the reef is very close and the horrible breakers are in all ears.
Anderson himself holds the wheel. He has put the helm up, and soon the great ship, with swelling sails, breaks out of the current. He feels the change in an instant; the hands know it too. But the danger is not past. Leaving the wheel to another, he runs quickly forward to lean over the weather-rail. As he passes through the crowd on the fo'castle, the poor fellows cheer him ringingly. The fine old seaman doffs his cap and makes them a grand, manly bow.
He glances at the reef and then mutters quietly to himself, "She will never clear it, and God forgive me!" Then, wheeling round, he gives a command.
"Let go both anchors; it is our only chance!"
Many hearts sink at the order, but in as few moments as possible the cables are smoking through the hawse-pipes. The anchors touch bottom, and hold. All hands clutch the stanchions or shrouds in anticipation of the shock. It comes. The ship, racing on, is brought up with a round turn of such sudden force as to shake every nail in her timbers. Aloft there is crash upon crash, and the lighter spars come showering on to the deck, bringing with them ragged remnants of canvas. One man is struck down. The hawsers hum with strenuous vibration. The timbers at the bluff of the bow crack almost vertically, until the ship's nose is well-nigh torn out. The tension is too great and the port cable snaps. The starboard one is tougher. But were it ever so tough it would not save the ship, for its anchor is dragging. Back she sags, gathered into her doom by the whitening waters; until at length, thus lifted along, her keel rests athwart the bank, and she heels over. Her sailing days are done. As the consecutive seas sweep up the reef, she lifts her head and drops it again and again, like a poor recumbent brute in its death-hour. But the wind must sometime cease, and the waves forget their anger. Then will she take a long repose, leaning on her shattered side--the very type of a picturesque wreck.
About this time Messrs. Ruin & Ruin were more than usually interested in the shipping news, and one morning they saw, under the heading of "Wrecks and Casualties," this:
"MINICOY (MALDIVE ISLANDS).--The ship Chrysolite, of London, went ashore yesterday night on the southern reefs, and is now a total wreck. All hands saved except John Anderson, master, who was killed by a falling spar."
The result of the whole business had far exceeded the owners' expectations. It had been so neatly done; and the greatest comfort of all was that no one was now left who could tell tales. They did not exactly thank God in so many words for the death of their faithful servant. That was very sad, as of course it should be. But they thanked Him in all humility for a certain sum of three thousand pounds, which would have gone elsewhere but for--If he, Anderson, had had wife or children, Messrs. Ruin & Ruin felt almost certain they would have made provision for them. But they thanked God again that he had never married. All that was necessary to be done now was to send in a claim for the insurance money, and, if well advised, retire into private life.
Messrs. Ruin & Ruin talked the matter over between them, congratulated themselves upon their prosperity, made no end of choice little plans for the future, and finally decided to forsake the commercial profession. And, indeed, they would have done so, but that the evening papers contained an item of intelligence which, though less expected, and therefore more startling, contained just as lively an interest for them as the report of the wreck. It ran thus:
"It is currently reported that the Jupiter Insurance Company has failed heavily, and is only able to meet its liabilities with a composition of sixpence on the pound."
Messrs. Ruin & Ruin still carry on business near Billiter Street, but their offices are now on the top floor in a very back alley.