This is the first story from Verrill that I have found that mentions Nova Scotia where we live.
Verrill's 'Sea Stories' were published in the 1920s, when Verrill lived in The Endicott Hotel in NYC, a notorious home to mobsters. The hotel became a upscale condominium in the 1990s.
And a Little Child Shall Lead Them
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine, 1923 April. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr., Betty Paulos and Doug Frizzle 2009, December.
The motives that prompt sailormen to engage in
“So that’s the graft, eh?” rumbled Captain Carmichael as he straightened up in his chair and gazed from under bushy brows at the overdressed, florid-faced man across the little table. “Want me to run a cargo of booze and risk my ship and the calaboose or a fine for me and me men for five thousand while you set back safe and sound and pocket the profits. No, mister, nothing doing.”
“Got cold feet or too law-abiding?” sneered the other.
“Maybe we might sweeten the kitty a bit if that’s all,” suggested the other man. “Would ten grand tempt you?”
For a space the bull-necked, deep-chested seaman studied his companion thoughtfully. Then: “Say,” he ejaculated, “you fellows make me tired. You think you’re some pumpkins, but you don’t know no more about running in contraband than a suckling babe. You’re a bunch of pikers and dumb fools besides.
“You send a schooner down to load hootch in the Bahamas and you know blamed well Nassau’s full of spies and every keg and case you put aboard’s checked off, and then the craft sails north with faked papers and sneaks up the coast and lays to twelve or fifteen mile off shore, just advertising she’s crooked, and then a towboat or a launch goes off making enough racket to wake old Davy Jones and you get chased and catched or have a gun fight or maybe land a few hundred cases and clean up a few thousand and call it business.
“No, mister, my motter’s ‘a thing what’s worth doing at all’s worth doing well’ and you might’s well die for a sheep as a lamb. The fine ain’t no bigger if you bring in a thousand cases than if you bring in one, and big deals are what pays.”
The other snorted. “If you’re such a wise guy why don’t you do it?” he demanded. “Reckon from what I’ve heard of you you’ve had some experience running contraband before now. It would pay you a lot better than running that old schooner of yours with cargoes of lumber and coal.”
“Why don’t I!” retorted
The florid-faced man shot a keen, searching glance at the rugged, heavy-jawed captain and intense interest showed in every feature. “Look here,” he exclaimed, lowering his voice and casting a swift, furtive glance about the dingy water-front café. “Maybe we can do business after all, cap. Tell me the lay and if it listens good the money’s easy.”
For the next ten minutes the seaman spoke earnestly in hoarse whispers, and as he talked the other’s eyes sparkled, a knowing grin spread over his coarse features and he nodded approvingly from time to time.
“Damned if I don’t think you can put it over!” he cried enthusiastically as
“’Course ‘tis,” agreed the captain. “Didn’t I tell you that’s why I couldn’t swing it—and needs organization, too. You’ve got both and I’ve got the ship and the know how. Make it a fifty-fifty deal and I’ll put it through and no risk to you, either. All you got to do is hire a office like I said; hang out your sign—West Indian Trading Company, or any such name—‘tend to the cables and papers and dig up the cash. Leave the rest to me.”
For a time the other remained silent, thinking deeply, going over the captain’s plan in detail in his mind, trying to discover some fault, some flaw, some remote contingency that might lead to discovery and disaster. But he could find none. The scheme was so open, so frank, that he could see no possible cause for suspicion and, if it worked—as he felt it must—it would mean a fortune and the biggest cargo of liquor ever smuggled into the
The possibilities were staggering. He and his friends would literally be the kings of the bootleggers and could force out all competition. But why had no one ever thought of it before? There were plenty of unprincipled ship masters and owners fully as smart and as scheming as the
“Why hasn’t some one else tried it?” he demanded.
“Hell, how do you know
“H’m, that’s so,” admitted the other, “and the first one’s the guy that makes the cleanup. Sure about that place where you can transship?”
“Do you think I’m crazy or just drunk?” snorted the other. “Course I’m sure. Not sighted once a century by no ships. Why it ain’t even down on most maps.”
“Well, I can’t see any chance for a slip,” admitted the florid-faced man at last. “How long will it take to get it here?”
“Allowing three days for you to get that office and things fixed up and get
“Good enough!” exclaimed his companion, “I’m with you, Carmichael. How soon can you clear?”
“I got an offer of cargo now,” replied
“Fine! And how much ready cash’ll you want to handle your end of it?”
The other laughed and slapped the big seaman on the back. “Does seem kind of a joke, don’t it?” he exclaimed. “Just chicken feed alongside what we’ll be putting in our jeans a couple o’ months from now.”
Captain Carmichael was as good as his word. Two days after the conversation in the café, his schooner was dropping down the harbor in tow of a fussy tug. In his pocket he carried an official-looking document wherein was set forth the fact that the “schooner Ella May, British, Pictou, N.S., Jerry Carmichael, master,” had been chartered by the Antillean Trading and Development Company for the South American and West Indian trade, “said charter to enter into effect from the date upon which the present cargo was discharged and the said schooner ready for sea at the port of St. John, New Brunswick.” And with this was a second paper whereby Captain Jerry Carmichael, master and owner of the schooner Ella May, was duly appointed as agent of the Antillean Trading and Development Company with powers to transact the company’s business that were very broad indeed.
And in the meantime, back in
Upon the walls were pictures of steamships and sailing vessels, photographs of picturesque South American and West Indian ports, a huge map of the
There were stenographers and assistants; typewriters clicked incessantly and cables were sent and received with amazing prodigality. And the contents of these were beyond question. One of the first had been to a British house, ordering a large consignment of choice liquors to be shipped at once in bond to a consignee in Trinidad, others had ordered similar shipments to
Requests had been received for quotations on sugar, cocoa, cabinet woods and balsa. Whole shipments of general merchandise, of motor cars and of machinery, had been arranged for by the company with various steamship lines plying between
In due time the Ella May docked at
Without unusual incident the Ella May came to anchor off
“Well, I’ll be blowed if ‘tain’t Jerry Carmichael in the flesh!” cried the thin, lantern-jawed individual in white drill who had sprung up from a Berbice chair at the captain’s entrance. “What’s on your mind, old shipmate?”
For a space the two talked in subdued tones, for walls are thin in
The girl returned, bringing tall glasses filled with the island’s national drink—the green swizzle—and again shuffled from the room.
As the two sipped the iced beverages they discussed business, shipping, the sugar crop, everything but the matter in hand, until
There’ll be more coming your way if you handle this right,” commented
But Baxton had no intention of failing. Armed with his documentary proof that he was the accredited local representative of the Antillean Company, he visited the port officialdom, secured the necessary orders for the release of two hundred cases of the best Scotch, and before sundown had it safely aboard a St.Lucia sloop and with a native crew of two disreputable looking gigantic blacks was sailing southwestward bound ostensibly for St. Vincent. Well out of sight of land, however, the sloop’s course was changed, sail was shortened and the little craft cruised aimlessly about the
Swiftly the cargo was transferred, the two vessels parted company and a few days later once more met off
North of the frowning Venezuelan coast, still more was transferred from the sloop slipping out through the Bocas from Trinidad, and at Curacao,
All her papers were in perfect order, a cable was waiting for the skipper with instructions to load a small shipment of sugar and a few thousand billets of balsa wood, and to proceed to Rio de la Hacha for additional balsa.
When at last she headed northeast from the Colombian coast she was full, the sugar serving admirably for ballast and light, cork-like balsa filling the hold to the hatches and overflowing in generous deck load.
Well out of sight of the steamer lanes she held her course, and four days later the lookout in the crosstrees made out a low-lying smudge of land upon the horizon off the starboard bow.
In the lee of the lonely forsaken islet, the almost unknown bit of land scarcely a mile in circumference, rising barely a dozen feet above the waves and over one hundred miles from any land, the Ella May dropped anchor.
It was an ideal spot for Carmichael’s purpose, a seagirt no-man’s land whose ownership was claimed by Britain, France, and Holland, but not worth squabbling over; the abode of countless thousands of sea birds from which it had received the name of Aves Island, and so far from the beaten track of steam or sail that, as Jerry had assured his florid-faced companion in New York, it was not sighted once in a century.
And here on this God-forsaken bit of guano-covered rock the crew of the Ella May labored like demons at a strange occupation while, from dawn until dark, the staccato exhaust of a gasoline motor frightened the screaming sea birds from their nests. Although balsa is the lightest of woods, handling ten-foot billets for hour after hour is hot, heavy, back-breaking work. But Jerry had chosen his crew from among those he knew and could rely on, the reward in store was great, there was no complaint and at the close of ten days of unremitting toil the Ella May’s sails were hoisted, her anchor rose slowly to the catheads and she headed for the Windward Passage and distant New York.
Two months to the day from the time the Ella May had set sail for
Without delay hatches were lifted,
Each straight log was neatly marked at the end with a red circle and a cross, as called for on the invoices and manifest, and as hundreds of the billets were piled in orderly stacks inside the dock shed, Jerry and his friends were in high spirits.
There had been the usual search of the schooner for contraband, but nothing was found, not even a flask among the possessions of the crew, and not a paper among the mass of documents tracing the schooner’s movements since she had cleared from
Everything had gone smoothly every detail had worked out exactly as
“You’re a wonder, captain,” declared Jerry’s companion admiringly as, seated in his luxurious car
“Not a mite,” replied the skipper. “Everything went fine as silk and smooth as oil. By glory, didn’t I tell you I’d do it? But say, wouldn’t them customs chaps get the jolt of their lives if they knew what was going on under their noses?”
“You said it,” chuckled the other. “Do you think there’s any chance they might get wise? There’s a hundred grand for each of us in this and I get nervous as a cat thinking of what might happen.”
“Not a chance,”
Upon the wharf, old Tom, the watchman, surveyed the great tiers of logs speculatively. They had awakened memories of the past. It was from just such a schooner as the Ella May that they had been discharging logs—rosewood from west Africa—when one of the billets had slipped and crushed his leg, ending his sailor days forever and compelling him to stump about on a timber leg for the rest of his days.
That was twenty-odd years ago, he remembered, with a vague sort of surprise that the years had fled so rapidly, and they surely had treated him square, he thought. Yes, given him the job as watchman for life; not much pay in it, but better than nothing, by gum! Yes, sir, didn’t know what would have become of Hetty and little Bobbie after Jack was lost when his ship was torpedoed if he hadn’t had this job. But how about it when he died?
He was getting old—couldn’t last much longer—but perhaps he’d hold out until Bobbie was big enough to work. Fine little kiddie, Bobbie, bound he was going to be a sailor, too—just like his dad and his gran’ther. And what was that the little rascal had asked him? By gum, yes, that was it, he’d almost forgotten it—a boat. “Make me a boat, gran’ther,” he’d pleaded, “a boat just like the one daddy was in.”
The old fellow chuckled. Fine way to pass the long night—whittling out a boat for Bobbie—and patiently he commenced searching about for a bit of clear pine from which to carve the hull of the toy. Bits of oak there were—old hatch wedges and skids, broken fir and spruce scantlings, odds and ends of a dozen different varieties of wood, but not a block of pine to be found.
Vaguely he remembered having seen just such a piece as he wanted somewhere, and, striving to focus his thoughts, to remember where it had been, he unconsciously poked at one of the balsa logs with his wooden leg. To his amazement, it moved easily and, his curiosity aroused, he stooped, grasped one end of the billet and exclaimed in surprise. “I’ll be blowed! Don’t weigh scarcely nothin’. Why in blazes couldn’t it ha’ been a log like that that tumbled down atop o’ me? Wonder what dumb kind o’ wood ‘tis annyhow.”
Curious to learn more of the strange light wood, the old fellow drew out his pocket knife and tried its edge on the log. It cut like cheese and his eyes lit up. If only he had a bit of that wood it would be just the thing.
Possibly, he thought, there might be a piece splintered or chipped from a log, and with his flash light he sought diligently but to no avail. Too dumb bad, so his thought ran, he just wanted one bit of the stuff to make that toy boat so Bobbie wouldn’t be disappointed and here were hundreds of the logs with hundreds more still on the schooner. Surely the owner could spare a little piece; he couldn’t grudge the kiddie that. But no, that wouldn’t be right—to cut a piece from a log for the boat.
He was there to protect property, not to make use of it, and slowly, with disappointment in his old eyes, he closed the knife, slipped it in his pocket and stumped with bent head to the little cubby-hole with its broken-down chair. But his mind kept turning to Bobbie and his boat, to the light, soft wood which would be just the perfect material for the toy, to the fact that there were hundreds of logs and all he wished was a few inches from one.
Of course he couldn’t help himself. Why hadn’t he remembered Bobbie’s boat sooner, before the schooner’s captain left, so he could have asked permission? Then he glanced up and temptation stared him in the face. Hanging upon the wall was an old saw, one some careless had left behind and that had been kept awaiting a claimant, and hardly knowing what he was doing, the old man rose, grasped the saw and with his inner consciousness telling him not to and his love for his grandchild urging him on, he walked slowly toward the pile of logs. He’d tell the captain or the agent in the morning, he declared to himself, would explain why he needed the bit of wood. Would offer to pay for it out of his scanty wages if necessary.
Thus salving his conscience, he selected a smooth, straight log, gauged the length he would need for the boat and drew the saw across the wood. It bit in easily—it was almost like sawing tallow—and in no time it had sunk to the depth of an inch. Then, with an odd rasping, grating noise it slid uselessly across some hard material.
“Shucks!” exclaimed the old man. “Derned stuff’s got a hard heart after all. Just soft outside. Reckon I’ll have to split off-a piece of it. Mebbe it’s thick enough. Withdrawing the saw, the watchman opened the heavy blade of knife, inserted the point at the bottom of the scarf made by the saw and, using his knife chisellike, he endeavored to split off the soft wood. For a few moments the balsa refused to split, the blade merely digging into the wood, and then, as he exerted more strength, the wood suddenly gave, a section split off and hung dangling by a few fibers and the old man stood gazing, speechless, dumfounded, at what he saw. Resting within a hollow in the log was a dark brown bottle!
“Wall, I’ll be blowed!” ejaculated
“I swan!” he cried. “The derned log’s full o’ booze. By Godfrey, darned if I ain’t run onto somethin’!”
It was overwhelming, incredible. If every log contained liquor
Perhaps he should notify
But how could he reach him? It was nearly midnight; the captain would be at home, and it would be too risky to tell him of discovery over the telephone. And perhaps Captain Carey wouldn’t believe him, would laugh at him. Well, he’d first be sure there was more of the stuff, and rising, he moved to the pile of logs and selecting them at random sawed into them.
Years ago drink had been his curse; it had nearly cost him his life, and he had vowed never to touch it again. But now, suddenly, with all this vast store of liquor within reach, with the excitement and nerve tension he was under, an almost irresistible temptation came over him to taste the fiery stuff once more. And with this long-forgotten desire came another thought. What business was it of his anyway?
If the customs men could be fooled let them be fooled. He could say nothing, could hide the bottles from the log he had split, could toss the log into the river and later dispose of the stuff of what to him, would be a small fortune. But the next instant he had hurled this half-formed thought from him. It had been bad enough to try to take that bit of wood for Bobbie’s boat, even though it had led to such startling results.
And at thought of
But there was still that log with the gaping hole and the remaining bottles. He must get rid of that, for he had decided that he must wait for morning and then notify Captain Carey personally, and he knew that with that telltale log the secret would be out as soon as the stevedores arrived. The others, those with only the saw marks might escape notice—he could roll them over so the marks were hidden—but the other must be destroyed. So working carefully, he managed to extract the six remaining bottles from the log, half dragged and half rolled it to the end of the dock and dumped it into the stream. To hide the liquor was not hard—no one ever bothered about his tiny “office” as he called it—and thus having settled definitely on his plans, he seated himself comfortably and, almost unwittingly, started whittling the form of a tiny hull from a bit of balsa wood.
Captain Carey had not finished dressing when old Tom rang his bell
“It’s up to Uncle Sam, now,” he announced. “Now, tell me
Once more the old sailor related his story, not sparing himself, going into the most minute details, baring his thoughts and temptations.
“And I reckon you’ll not be wantin’ me down on that job no more, Cap’n Carey,” he ventured. “I done wrong, cap’n, to take that
“What did you do with it?” demanded Captain Carey with an odd note in his voice.
Old Tom fished
“By— Say, ye don’t mean that—honest to goodness—do ye?” cried
“Absolutely,” declared Captain Carey smiling. “And a pension when you’re ready to quit. But I want you to do me a favor, too, Tom. I want you to take this bit of wood home, make
As Captain Carey spoke, he handed the half-finished boat to the old man and with it a little wad of crisp new bills.
“But—but—by gum!” stammered
“It’s all right, Tom,” he announced as he returned. “Got ‘em all; rounded up
“Aye, cap’n,” muttered