Bless the Mules
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine, March 1928. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr., Cathy Conrad and Doug Frizzle-2010 and 2011.
With his ship afire and a group of nervous passengers aboard, Captain Carmody found himself in a terrible position, but eventually it brought him to a new appreciation of the potentialities of mules.
The Marowhanna dropped her pilot off Scotland Lightship, and with a farewell roar of her whistle to the bobbing station boat, nosed into the sharp southeasterly seas of the gray November afternoon. Upon her lofty bridge, Captain Jerry Carmody paced back and forth, pausing a moment at each turn in his stride to peer into the murk of the rapidly approaching dusk. For the first time he was taking the ship out as master, for old Captain Kirkman, under whose command Jerry had risen from third to first, had retired for good and all—partly owing to a superabundance of avoirdupois and frequent twinges of gout, and partly owing to the insistence of his wife, and had fulfilled his lifetime desire by retiring to a Staten Island farm where he was raising chickens and garden truck.
Carmody was proud of his ship as well he might be. She was a stanch, seaworthy craft of seven thousand tons, and could reel off her eighteen knots if necessity arose or could jog along, day after day, at thirteen point two. Although primarily a cargo boat, as were all the ships of the Caribbean Shipping Company’s fleet, the Marowhanna had accommodations for nearly one hundred passengers. And while she had none of the ornate decorations or super-luxurious fittings of a liner, yet her staterooms were as comfortable and were even larger than those of many a crack passenger ship, and no boat in the West Indian service could boast of a better table.
Also, it goes without saying, Jerry was proud of himself, as is every good seaman on his first voyage as master. And Carmody was a good seaman in every sense of the word. As a tow-headed youngster he had played in the shadows of gaunt steel skeletons in the Clyde shipyards. At the age when most boys are puzzling their brains over fractions he was laying aloft and with frost-numbed fingers was hauling at frozen reef cringles on a Cape Horn windjammer. By the time he reached his majority he was a hard-bitten, harder fisted mate, and now he was master of a fine ship with four stripes on his sleeves.
Moreover, he was ambitious. He had no desire and no intention of remaining all his life at sea—he had reached as high as he could go at that now—and his ultimate aim was to secure an interest in the line and secure a billet ashore.
In order to do this, Jerry knew that he must attract the attention of the owners, who, being one and all canny Scots, would, Carmody knew, be far more appreciative of profits earned than of masterly seamanship. Yes, he would show them! He would prove that a ship’s master need not necessarily confine his talents and activities to navigating his ship back and forth between Brooklyn and the islands, as had old Kirkman. Not that the old skipper was not all right in his way, thought Carmody. He owed Kirkman much—even his present position, and the old man was as thorough a seaman and as fine a navigator as ever braced himself to a heaving deck and squinted through a sextant. But to Jerry’s mind he was a bit old-fashioned and far too easy-going—perfectly satisfied to loaf along at a little over twelve knots, make his schedule, and sip long, iced swizzles in the cool galleries of island ports, and leave all matters of cargoes, freights and other business to the company’s agents. None of that for him, thought Carmody. He’d clip off a half day here, a few hours there, and make quick runs. He’d drive the agents and the lazy Negro stevedores as he’d driven shore gangs in his square-rigger days; and with his long experience and innumerable friends up and down the Caribbean he’d drum up trade and add many a new shipper and consignee to his company’s list.
With such thoughts filling his mind, Jerry strode back and forth upon the bridge, as the watery sun sank in a bank of smoke-colored clouds beyond the flat, New Jersey coast. Far astern the twin lights of the Highlands twinkled in the blackness. A few points off the starboard bow the red and green side lights of an oncoming Dominion liner shone brightly. To the eastward the superimposed lights of a towboat with a string of barges crept slowly toward the distant port, and far out upon the horizon the riding light of a solitary schooner rose and fell rhythmically and a wildly swinging, erratically bobbing point of light marked a suspicious coastguard chaser watchfully waiting for the four sticker to drift within the rum running deadline.
All was well, it was plain sailing today and as six bells struck and the infernal banging of a gong sounded from the saloon deck, Jerry gave a last glance at the binnacle, swept ship and sea with his eyes, and leaving the bridge in charge of Tisdale, his second, Carmody entered the cabin to prepare for dinner.
The majority of the Marowhanna’s fifty-odd passengers were already seated when the captain entered the dining room. Most of them were well-to-do merchants and planters hurrying home at the first touch of cold weather, and many were old acquaintances of Jerry’s. Nodding to some, shaking hands with others, stopping to speak a few words with those whom he considered as prospective patrons of the line, Carmody seated himself at the back of the captain’s table. Unlike most of the newer ships, the Marowhanna’s dining saloon, instead of being equipped with numerous small tables, seating four at the most, was fitted with long tables running fore and aft and seating eight to ten passengers and two officers at each. All of the eight at the captain’s table were strangers to Carmody, and the chief engineer Isbester, whose place was at the lower end of the table facing the captain, was still below, watching his beloved engines.
At Jerry’s right were Mr. and Mrs. Rolfe, a young couple whom Carmody at once placed as newlyweds on their honeymoon. On his left was a Mr. Henly, a plump, jolly little widow, reminding Jerry of an animated apple, and given to innocent flirtations with every good-looking male she met. Next to her was Colonel May, retired, formerly of the British army, but now in charge of Trinidad’s constabulary, and returning to his post after a visit to the States to study Metropolitan police methods. A bit pompous with deep-set eyes under bushy brows, a fiercely bristling white mustache, his face burned scarlet by years of the Indian sun, and overburdened with a tremendous dignity, the poor colonel was having a hard time of it between the coquettish widow on his right and a severely dressed and more severely featured spinster named Squires who was on his left. The remaining three at the table were traveling men, young but worldy wise fellows who were busily engaged in discussing discounts and deliveries between mouthfuls, and who gave no heed to their fellow passengers or to the ship’s officers.
Not a very promising lot as far as social pleasantries went, thought the captain, although the Rolfes and the widow were all right, and the colonel, he knew, was a pinochle enthusiast. But he had little time to mentally analyze those at his table. Mrs. Rolfe was already plying him with questions. When would they have warm weather? How soon would they see flying fish? Did monkeys really thrown down coconuts as passers-by? Would they have a storm? And similar queries, sensible and otherwise, asked by every new sea voyager, and to which Jerry had become long accustomed and which he forced himself to answer without obvious impatience. Rolfe himself seemed a quiet, sensible sort of chap, and whenever he could get a word in edgewise, sought information of some interest and value. The widow, who had been trying her wiles upon the colonel, and had been gushingly exclaiming over her love of everything military—declaring that she thought the British uniforms “perfectly adorable”—now turned her attention to Carmody and naïvely asked if the four bands upon his sleeves indicated wounds or service. And, without waiting for a reply, exclaimed that she thought it must be “just too wonderful” to be a sea captain.
Relieved of the kittenish widow’s attentions, Colonel May apparently on the point of bursting with embarrassment and offended dignity, adjusted his monocle and savagely speared an inoffensive bivalve, only to be interrupted by the Squires person, who, in frigid tones, asked if he always sugared his oysters. Presently, however, as the group became better acquainted and the conversation became general, all felt at ease, and, the meal over, every one repaired to the social hall and decks, breaking up into little groups as usual. Seated in a steamer chair, and wrapped in heavy rugs, was an enormous female upon whose ample lap reposed a tray with the remains of a hearty meal.
“Oh, captain,” she exclaimed in a querulous voice as Jerry passed, “I must change my room.”
“Very well, ma’am,” replied Carmody, “the purser will attend to it. There are plenty of empty cabins to choose from.”
“And I’m quite sure there is something the matter which you’re keeping from the passengers,” she went on. “I have been terribly frightened. I heard the sounds of heavy tramping feet and a terrible scream from downstairs. Really, I cannot endure it. I’m a very sick woman, captain.”
Jerry laughed. “Don’t worry over that,” he said. “You heard the mules, I expect. We’ve about forty of the beasts in the ‘tween-decks.”
Before she could reply the skipper hurried forward. But he had hardly settled himself with his pipe and a book in his snug cabin when he was interrupted by a knock on his door, and in response to his summons, the purser, Whitfield, appeared.
“Sorry to trouble you, sir,” he said, “but there’s a lady passenger that says you told her she could have suit A. Is it all right, sir?”
“Nothing of the sort!” ejaculated Jerry. “Big, broad-beamed woman, isn’t she? Who is she, anyhow?”
“A Mrs. Jardine,” replied Whitfield. “Belongs in Trinidad—wife of that Frenchman who made a lot of money on oil on his land. Shall I give her the suit, sir?”
“Of course, if she wants to pay for it,” grunted Carmody, “she’s able to.”
“But she doesn’t,” explained the purser. “She says she’s ill and must have the best there is—insists she can’t stop below but must have the rooms on deck. Says the mules disturb her and make her nervous.”
“Well, it’s up to you,” snapped the captain. “My job is to run this ship, not to bother over rooms and women’s whims. If she won’t pay let her stay where she is, or change to another cabin at the same rate. Why, man, what’d the owners say if I let a passenger have the suite without the extra pay? Take the difference out of my salary most likely. Business is business, and the extra charge for that suite’s equal to the freight on twenty-five tons of cargo. Don’t bother me over it.”
Whitfield sighed. “Very well, sir,” he said dismally, “but she’ll raise the devil.”
Ten minutes later he was back again. “The lady in suite A would like to see you, captain,” he announced.
“What the devil does she want to see me for?” ejaculated Jerry. “Still kicking about paying?”
“No, sir, she paid for the suite,” explain Whitfield. “She did it under protest and says she’ll demand a refund from the Trinidad agent. She wants to see you about the mules.”
“Damn the mules and confound the woman!” growled Carmody, as, throwing down his book and jamming on his cap, he followed the purser below.
Mrs. Jardine, arrayed in a décolleté lavender negligee, trimmed with purple ostrich feathers, was half reclining on the couch when the captain entered her suite. As languidly as though on the point of expiring, she turned her head and greeted Jerry with a wan smile.
“I’m a very sick woman,” she reminded him, “and I think it’s an outrage to treat me in this way. Had I known this was a cattle boat I never would have taken passage——.”
“She’s not,” interrupted Carmody, bristling. “She carries a general cargo like every other ship of the line. And you knew all about her before you bought your ticket, Mrs. Jardine—every one in Trinidad knows these ships.”
“Oh, dear, now you’re insulting me!” she cried petulantly. “And I must not be excited. I’m a very sick woman.”
“No more sick than I am,” thought the captain, but aloud: “I’m not insulting you, ma’am, and I regret that the mules trouble you. But you can’t hear them up here on deck. If there’s anything in reason I can do to make you more satisfied I will gladly do it.”
“Then can’t you please remove those mules?” she asked in tones that seemed to imply that she had no further interest in life.
The captain snorted and dashed from the room. “Beast!” he heard her exclaim as the door shut behind him.
“Drat her!” he muttered to himself. “Making a blamed nuisance of herself and trying to run the ship—and a tar-brushed Creole or I’m a soldier. By Cripes, I wish a bit of a blow’d come on and she’d be blessed sick in earnest! Yes, by Godfrey, if this is the sort of thing a master gets I wish to blazes I was a mate.”
Hoping to forget the troublesome woman and her imaginary ills, Jerry entered the smoking room, and in a game of bridge with the Rolfes and the colonel, he temporarily recovered his usual genial good humor. But he was not to be left long in peace. Presently the Squire woman entered and sternly and disapprovingly staring at the card players audibly expressed her opinion of sea captains who left their ships and passengers to fate and indulged in such “snares of Satan” after which she flounced from the room.
Flushing, Carmody finished the hand and with a flimsy excuse rose and retired to the bridge, wondering if a captain’s life was always so filled with annoyances. By midnight, as if in answer to Jerry’s wish, a stiff easterly wind was whistling across the Marowhanna’s decks, and in a nasty cross sea the ship was rolling and pitching beautifully. It was dirty weather throughout the following day, and few of the passengers appeared on deck or at table, and Carmody had twenty-four hours of peace.
The next day, however, dawned gloriously clear, with a warm, balmy breeze from the south, an azure sky flecked with woolly clouds, and a sparkling indigo sea. “Regular trade wind weather,” commented Carmody, as, clad in singlet and trousers and with his feet thrust into heelless Chinese slippers, he stepped onto the bridge and glanced about. The sun, just above the eastern horizon, sparkled on brass work and crystallized brine. The crew, in dungarees and bare legs, was holystoning the decks under the watchful eye and alert vigilance of the third officer. Flying fish skittered from the tumbling bow wave and the ship, by that invariable though inexplicable magic of the tropics, appeared to be merely loafing along, though the captain knew she was making a good thirteen knots. Yawning, he stepped to the port end of the bridge and glanced overside at the creaming seas hurled aside by the hull’s passage, and which broke in prismatic showers. Far astern stretched a lane of “blueing and suds,” half a dozen Mother Cary’s Chickens flitted back and forth under the ship’s counter, and a single “Bos’n Bird” floated far overhead.
All was well and Jerry reentered his cabin to complete his toilet. He was in the midst of shaving when an insistent knock sounded on his door, and, without waiting for an invitation, the first officer entered.
“Sorry, sir,” he apologized, before the captain could speak. “I’m afraid the ship’s on fire, sir,” he continued as calmly as though describing some distant light.
“What?” ejaculated the captain, unable to believe he had heard aright.
“You can smell it quite plainly on the lower deck,” declared the other. “I think it’s in number two hold.”
With his face half covered with lather, Carmody rushed to the bridge and sniffed.
“Nothing here,” he exclaimed, and hurried below with the first at his heels.
“Hell, you’re right!” he cried, as his nostrils caught the pungent odor of smoke, and he began to circumnavigate the deck sniffing as he went. “In number two, as you said,” he announced. “Put stoppers on those ventilators, Mr. Henderson,” he snapped out, as a tiny whiff of smoke drifted from the nearest ventilator’s red mouth. “What’s in number two?” he demanded as the officer ordered the ventilators closed.
“Mostly sacked flour for Barbados,” replied Henderson. “We were going to put that consignment of turpentine and linseed oil in there, too, but the boss stevedore made a mistake and stowed it in number one.”
“And damned lucky, too,” commented Jerry. “It’s bad enough as ‘tis. If that division bulkhead gets red-hot there’ll be a holy volcano in number one. Get out the steam hose and turn all we’ve got into number two. Maybe we can smother it. And for the love of Mike don’t let the passengers know of this. If one of the crew so much as peeps, I’ll keelhaul him, so help me Bob. Here,” he ordered, as the second officer appeared, “stretch a line athwart ship just abaft the boat-deck companionway and mark it ‘paint, keep off’ and put two men to painting every dumb thing for’ard of it. I don’t want any fool passengers getting too near this stench.”
Quickly but unexcited, the crew obeyed the officers’ orders, and presently number two hold was being pumped full of blinding steam, and a couple of deck hands were busily painting forward of the line stretched across the deck with its warning placard.
Isbester, summoned from his quarters aft, joined the captain on the bridge.
“I ha’ me doots,” he muttered as, puffing at his pipe, he gazed gloomily at the deck, below which the unseen fire smoldered. “Aye, I ha’ me doots ye can do muckle wi’ the steam. ‘Tis flour, ye say, an' fire i' flour’ll smolder an’ spread till dee'il knows when, steam or no steam.”
“Don’t I know it?” interrupted the skipper. “And when it’s cooked up a holy mess of gas and punk, off she’ll go.”
“An’ if ye flood yon hold ‘twill be makin’ dough to choke the pumps,” the engineer reminded him lugubriously, “not to be mentionin’ the tidy lot o’ highly inflammable cargo ye’ ha’ stowit in number one.”
“I didn’t send for you to croak over it,” cried Carmody angrily. “I want to know what’s the best speed you can turn up, and I want to have you warn that black gang of yours that if word of this gets to the passengers I’ll use their dirty carcasses for fuel.”
The engineer grinned. “Hoot mon!” he rumbled “’Tis aboot sixteen she should turn over. ‘Tis Bermuda ye’ll be makin’ for, I dinna doot.”
“’Twill be not,” the skipper informed him. “Nice hold-up there, with an admiralty court and nosey inspectors and adjusters and all. Catch me putting in there and being held hell knows how long. No, sir, I’m here to take this ship to the islands and deliver her cargo, and I’m going to do it.”
“Maybe, maybe,” muttered Isbester, shaking his shaggy head, “but dinna fail to recollec’ ‘tis mon proposes an’ God disposes, Jerry. An’ ye’ve the passengers to conseeder.”
“An’ dinna forget,” he admonished Jerry, as a parting shot as he went below, “Dinna forget there’s admiralty boards an’ sich in yon islan’s as weel as i’ Bermuda. ‘Tis a verra great reesk ye’re takin’, Jerry lad.”
Presently the increased throb of the engines, the dense smoke pouring from the ship’s funnel, and the high-flung bow wave satisfied Carmody that Isbester was pushing the Marowhanna for all she was worth. But Jerry’s position was not an enviable one. His ship was afire—just how badly ablaze he could not know. At any moment the flour might explode and blow off the hatches to release a seething volcano, and, separated from the smoldering flames by only a thin bulkhead, were tons of paints, turpentine and resin. It would have seemed that the logical and safest course to follow would have been to head for Bermuda scarcely three hundred miles distant, but there were good reasons why Jerry hesitated to do this.
In the first place, as he had explained to the engineer, It would mean a long delay, a survey, an inquiry, an inspection, the discharge of cargo, underwriters’ adjustments, and other formalities, which would entail the expense of transshipping passengers and cargo, the loss of homeward freights and very possibly Carmody’s removal as master. Moreover, the wind was freshening and was veering to the east. To head into it would mean that the odor of smoke would be blown aft and the passengers would thus be alarmed if not panic-stricken, and, in case the fire broke through the deck, the flames would sweep the ship. Whereas, by keeping on his course, the smoke and flames—if by any chance the fire increased—would be blown to starboard and forward.
But the nearest port of the islands was still thirty-six hours away, even at the ship’s increased speed, and at any minute the fire might burst its bounds or an explosion might take place. What effect the steam was having, it was impossible to tell, and Jerry dared not turn water into the hold until absolutely necessary. As Isbester had said, the sticky mess of flour and water would in all probability clog the pumps, and, once the fire was out, there would be no way of getting the water out again. Down by the head, with the forward hold filled with water, the Marowhanna would be either unmanageable or easy prey to any storm which might arise.
And, finally, if the Marowhanna was to be taken to a port where she would be free from official investigations and their delays, Jerry would have to make St. Kitts. For, as Isbester had remarked, St. Thomas and Porto Rico were as undesirable as Bermuda in as far as boards and courts were concerned.
Carmody was not, however, afraid that he would be unable to make port without loss of his ship. He had had experiences with fires on shipboard before, and he was still confident that the steam would smother the blaze, or even if it did not extinguish the flames it would prevent the fire from increasing and spreading rapidly. His greatest anxiety was for his passengers. At the first suspicion or rumor of the smoldering volcano below decks, they would become terrified, perhaps panic-stricken, and, upon arriving in port, would beyond doubt make serious charges against the captain for not heading for Bermuda. As long as they could be kept in ignorance of what was going on, all might be well, but how long it would be possible to do this was questionable. Fortunately, thought Jerry, most of them had never been to sea before, and even if they smelled smoke, they might not suspect that it meant fire.
At any rate, there was too much to be done to bother over what might or might not occur. The first thing was to break out the dangerously inflammable cargo from number one hatch, and rapidly the tackle was rigged, the hatch removed, and the work of transferring the contents to the after part of the ship was begun. By the time the breakfast gong sounded, the work was well under way, and though Carmody hesitated about leaving the scene of activities, he felt that his presence at table would do much to allay any fears that might arise on the part of the passengers.
There was no trace of worry or anxiety on his face, and nobody, seeing him, would have dreamed that he was facing the most dreaded terror of the seas. Presently the Squires woman appeared, and Jerry’s heart sank, for she was sniffing audibly.
“Captain,” she exclaimed, as she seated herself, “I am quite positive this ship is on fire. I can smell smoke.”
For a moment Jerry was nonplused. All his hopes of keeping the trouble hushed up were futile. He flushed, and his jaw dropped. But instantly he recovered himself as he saw every one staring at him, hanging on his reply. He laughed heartily.
“I’m sorry you were troubled over that, ma’am,” he said. “I should have warned you all last night not to worry if you smelled anything unusual. It’s only the fumes from the disinfectants we use on the mules’ stalls below. It does smell like smoke, but it’s better than the odor from dirty stalls.”
Isbester chuckled and winked at Jerry ponderously. “Aye,” he began, and Carmody trembled a bit for fear the engineer might put his foot in it. “Aye, an’ ‘tis likely ye’ll be smellin’ muckle more o’ the fumigatin’,” he rumbled. “’Tis verra like smoke fra a fire, ye ken, an’ ‘tis verra penetratin’, aye, verra.”
With a sigh of relief, in which the captain heartily joined, the passengers resumed their meal, and the spinster, evidently quite satisfied with the explanation and the engineer’s corroboration, said no more about it.
But as the captain was leaving the dining room, the second steward stepped forward.
“Mrs. Jardine would like to speak with you, sir,” he said in low tones in the other’s ear. “She’s on the port side of the deck just for’ward of the smoking room!”
“To blazes with the woman,” thought Jerry, and then mentally checked himself. No, not that, it might be to blazes with all of them before long.
He found Mrs. Jardine sprawled in her chair like a huge, stranded jellyfish, her face a sickly yellow without her make-up, and obviously still feeling the effects of seasickness.
“Oh, dear, captain,” she sighed. “I’m a very sick woman, and I’m so worried. I’m sure something terrible is the matter. Those horrible mules were tramping and stamping and screaming so. And I’m sure I smelled smoke.”
Mentally cursing the mules, Jerry forced a laugh. “Yes, they did kick up a bit of a racket this morning,” he admitted. “We have to disinfect their stalls and they don’t like the fumigation. That’s what you smelled and thought was smoke.” The woman heaved a sigh of relief that caused her chair to creak ominously. “Oh, I’m so relieved,” she said, “but I’m so ill. And that terrible storm almost killed me. I wonder if we’ll ever reach Trinidad?”
Jerry was wondering that also, but his face showed no trace of it. “It did kick up a bit of a sea last night,” he admitted, “but it was no storm, ma’am. The Marowhanna’s weathered many a hurricane. And we should reach St. Thomas by to-morrow morning—barring accidents.”
“Accidents!” she ejaculated. “Oh dear, do you mean we will have accidents?”
“Not a bit of it,” he declared reassuringly. “That’s merely a manner of speech.”
“But St. Thomas doesn’t interest me,” she persisted, “and I’m so anxious to get ashore. When will we reach Trinidad?”
“That’s a bit uncertain,” replied Jerry with perfect truth. “I can’t say how long we may be stopping at other ports.” Then, as he turned to give an order to the deck steward, Carmody beat a hasty retreat.
But he ran instantly into other troubles. Gathered back of the warning line across the deck, a knot of passengers were buzzing like angry bees, while the raw-boned bos’n was obdurately refusing to take down the barrier.
“It bane captain’s orders,” he repeated for the twentieth time. “It bane frash paint das vay.”
“But confound it,” expostulated an angry passenger, “it’s an outrage, we’ve paid enough for passage and here you go daubing paint all over the ship so we can’t use the deck.”
The colonel, purple of face, and highly indignant at finding his morning constitutional barred, seemed ready to burst.
“Do you mean to tell me, sir,” he exploded as he caught sight of Carmody, “that we are excluded from the forward portion of this deck? By Jove, sir, I shall see about this when we reach Port of Spain, sir.”
“Sorry,” smiled Jerry, who felt like committing murder, “but the men are painting and if you passengers got mussed up the company might be sued for damages. There’s plenty of deck room aft of here.”
Miss Squires fixed him with an icy stare, folded her gaunt arms across her flat chest and remarked: “It is scarcely more than I should expect. It is very evident that certain persons are quite unfitted to deal with ladies and gentlemen.” The colonel, unable or not daring to express his feelings, wheeled and strode aft. Miss Squires, with nose uptilted, marched toward the social hall, and the other passengers, deliberately turning their backs on Jerry, commenced conversing among themselves.
Carmody whistled to himself. “Looks like I’m not popular around here,” was his mental comment as, repeating his orders to the bos’n to allow no one forward of the rope, he turned toward the bridge ladder. But once more his progress was checked. Several of the passengers had heard the rattle of winches forward, and had seen the crew carrying the cases of cargo from number one hold toward the ship’s stern. To many this would have meant nothing, but several were old travelers and they well knew that breaking out cargo and shifting it about in mid-ocean were not customary incidents of a voyage. Quite unaware of the real reasons, but curious to know why it was being done, and a bit suspicious, these now accosted the captain and asked for an explanation.
Jerry, who felt like telling them ‘twas none of their business, was momentarily at a loss for a reasonable answer, but he quickly recovered himself.
“Ship’s stores,” he replied, “stowed in the wrong hatch by mistake,” and without waiting for further queries he rushed to the sanctity of his bridge.
Number one hold had by now been almost cleared of its dangerous cargo and none too soon, for Henderson reported that the bulkhead was “smoking hot” already. “Fire seems to be right against the bulkhead,” he told the captain, “but I think the steam’s holding it in check. Do the passengers suspect anything amiss, sir?”
“Yes and no,” replied Carmody, “they all said they’d smelled smoke but I passed it off as fumigating the mules. Curse those mules anyhow. If they get panicky when they smell the smoke, Heaven have mercy on us.”
Presently Isbester appeared and captain and engineer had a long conference. But the latter shook his head dubiously when Carmody told him he was making for St. Kitts.
“’Tis a verra grave reesk, Jerry, me lad,” he declared. “The auld ship’s makin’ amazin’ fine time—near seventeen knot at this verra moment—an’ barrin’ bad weather ye’d be sightin’ Statia by Thursday dawnin’! But ye canna ken aboot yon fire.”
“Well, what the blazes would you do?” demanded Jerry. “If worst comes to worst, and we have to abandon the ship, we’ll be that much nearer land. If the fire can be kept under until tomorrow night we’ll be within sight of St. Thomas and safe. If anything serious happens we can run in to Charlotte Amalie, but as long as the passengers are not scared and that fire’s under hatches, I’m makin’ for St. Kitts. I can beach her there, fill number two with water and drown it out. Then clear the pumps if they get stuck.”
“Aye, ‘tis yer ain business,” growled the engineer. “’Tis not for me to be offerin’ advice to a master. An’ ye ken I’m w’ ye, Jerry. Hoot, mon if you passengers say more of smellin’ smoke, I’ll swear ‘twas me ain pipe they smellit. But ‘twas a fine though ye had, Jerry—that o’ the fumigatin’ o’ you mules! Hoot, laddie, ‘tis blessin’ the beasties ye should be, for furnishin’ ye wi’ the inspeeration for sic a lie.”
And as the hours passed, the captain began to fear that Isbester was right, and that the Marowhanna would never make St. Kitts. Despite constant wetting, the division bulkhead glowed dull red in spots. By mid-afternoon, Wednesday, the paint was blistering and flaking from the ventilators; their canvas covers were scorched brown; tiny wisps of smoke drifted from microscopic crevices in the hatch, and the pitch was bubbling from the deck planking, although men were ceaselessly soaking the hatch and its vicinity with water. It was evident that the steam had had little or no effect, that the fire was spreading and increasing in intensity every moment, and it was only a matter of time before the flames would burst forth. It was a race with death, death for the gallant ship, even if every soul aboard was saved, and Carmody realized that the odds were all against him. Everywhere forward, the odor of burning cloth and flour was suffocating, but the easterly wind, which had freshened steadily throughout the day, prevented the smoke from drifting aft.
Worried and troubled and anxious as he was, Carmody, to guard against any suspicions on the part of his passengers, forced himself to go to the table at mealtimes, and chatted and joked as though nothing were wrong. And yet, constantly in his mind, was the thought of the roaring furnace under the forward deck.
The passengers seemed to have no suspicions of anything wrong, although still complaining of the supposed fumigation of the mules’ quarters, and Mrs. Jardine, finding it too much effort to protest further, buried herself in risqué French novels. The more sociable passengers played at deck games, and Miss Squires appeared perfectly happy acting as self-appointed censoress of everybody and everything.
It was fortunate for them, and for the captain, that they were barred from a view of the forward deck, for by sundown the decks and hatch cover over the blazing hold were so hot that the water played upon them sizzled and steamed and drifted to leeward in a cloud of white vapour. The mules, too, were getting nervous. Under their feet the deck was getting too warm for comfort, their sensitive nostrils were filled with the odor of smoke, and kicking, stamping, rearing and uttering terrified whinnies, they strove to break their halters and escape the menace.
Still, by a miracle, the fire was kept below decks and when, a little before midnight, the bulk of St. Thomas loomed upon the horizon ahead, Carmody heaved a mighty sigh of relief. Now, he knew, his passengers would be safe, even if he lost his ship, and for a few moments, he considered swinging the Marowhanna on her course and heading for the harbor. But he decided to keep on. For the past two or three hours, the fire had not appeared to gain any headway, in fact Henderson thought that it was dying down, and St. Kitts with its convenient beach and easy-going officials was only a few hours ahead. So onward, rushing through the starlit night at her topmost speed, the Marowhanna sped past St. Thomas, past St. Johns, St. Martins and St. Barts, with an anxious, set-faced commander upon her bridge; a black gang toiling like demons in the pit, and in her forward hold an incandescent hell.
By dawn, the lofty cone of Statia was in plain view. To starboard the impregnable cliffs of Saba rose to the low-hung clouds, and silhouetted against the saffron-and-gold sunrise, stretched the rolling hills, the towering mountains and the sandy beaches of St. Kitts. Word that they would make port by daylight had been spread the previous evening, and many of the passengers were on deck by the time the sun peeped from behind Mount Misery, while the others had been routed from their berths by the stewards who, in stentorian tones and with resounding banging on doors, informed sleepy and resentful passengers that all hands were wanted on deck in readiness for the port doctor and customs officers.
By the time the forest-clad heights of the island showed green in the morning light, and the sun glinted on the roofs of distant Basseterre, the passengers were on deck, peering at the land they were so rapidly approaching. Those who had never before visited the islands were enthusiastically exclaiming over the beauties of the place, and were blind to all else, but those who were familiar with the trip, and knew that St. Thomas was scheduled as the first port of call, were excitedly discussing why they were being rushed to St. Kitts instead. But as no officer was in sight who could be appealed to for an explanation, they were forced to puzzle it out as best they could.
Leaning over the port rails, intent on the scene before them, the passengers did not notice that the Marowhanna’s engines failed to slow down and stop as the ship entered the roadstead. The excited figures of the blue-clad Negroes in the quarantine boat, who shouted and waved their arms as the Marowhanna swept past them, conveyed no meaning to the passengers, and when at last the ship’s keel plowed gently into the soft sandy bottom of the harbor, and she came to a standstill within a few hundred feet of the shelving beach, the unsuspecting passengers thought she had come to anchor.
At the moment the ship took the ground, stewards hurried about with cries of: “All passengers in the social hall,” and reluctantly, and as obediently as a flock of sheep, the passengers, with papers and passports in hands, filed into the saloon. When all had gathered, the captain appeared and motioned for silence.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “I am sorry to say that I must put you all to a little inconvenience. The ship is aground—no danger at all, she’s resting on soft sand, but it may be a few days before we can get her afloat, and you will all be forced to stop ashore in the meantime. There will be no additional expenses entailed. Everything will be paid for by the company, and you’ll enjoy the change from shipboard, I’m sure. Boats are waiting alongside, and you can take what necessities you require as hand baggage. And you will expedite matters by hurrying and getting off the ship as soon as possible. Every one is expected to be at the gangway within the next fifteen minutes.” As he finished, a storm of protests and angry expostulations arose. But the majority were frightened and nervous at learning the ship was aground, and were only too anxious to be safe on shore, while those who still protested were silenced by the uniformed, sun-helmeted officials, who, having been appraised of the fire and pledged to secrecy until all passengers were ashore, curtly reminded the remonstrating few that they were on a British ship, in a British port, and that orders were orders and must be obeyed.
Still grumbling, protesting, and vowing to bring damage suits and make complaints, the disgruntled ones hurried to their staterooms to pack up their bags, and well within the time set, all had gathered about the head of the gangway ladder. Already the blazing hold was being flooded with water, Carmody felt that the worst was over, and apparently none of the assembled passengers had any suspicions of the perils they had been through, or of the real reasons for their enforced trip ashore. There was, however, one exception. Colonel May, whose position and official status could not be overlooked, had been informed of the facts and had already left in the port-captains boat.
Standing at the head of the gangway, Captain Carmody watched his passengers as they descended the ladder and entered the waiting shore boats. A vast load had been lifted from his mind, and as each boat pulled away from the ship, he gave mental thanks that all had gone so well. Still, all danger was by no means past. The fire had spread farther aft than had been thought and, in order to drown it out, it was necessary to unload the mules. Ready to stampede, mad with terror, the beasts were hard to handle, and with difficulty were being slung over the ship’s side and dropped into the water on the opposite side from the gangway. As Jerry watched the disembarkation of his passengers, a particularly fractious mule was giving the men a tussle in the port alleyway, and shouts, curses, squeals and the resounding thud of hoofs on metal came from the scene of battle.
Only a few passengers remained on deck, among them the angular Miss Squires, who was still arguing with the officers. Mrs. Jardine, who insisted she was being hurried to her grave and would surely faint, and the plump little widow who was as smiling as ever, was flirting outrageously with the trim young shore doctor. At last the spinster was headed down the gangway, stopping at each step to shake her umbrella at the officers and captain. Stepping forward, the window touched Jerry’s arm. “Au revoir, captain,” she cooed. “I think you’re just perfectly wonderful—to have gone on as you have and to have kept every one from knowing about the fire. Oh, yes,” she continued as she saw the amazed expression on Carmody’s face. “I knew the ship had been on fire ever since Tuesday morning. It was lovely of you to think up that story about the mules. But you see, captain, my father raised mules and you couldn’t fool me, and my husband was a sea captain, so I knew what the trouble was. But it was wonderful of you.”
Before the astounded skipper could reply, she threw her arms about his neck, kissed him impulsively and hurried down the gangway.
“Well, I’ll be—,” ejaculated Carmody. But what he would be will never be known, for at this instant a terrified, amazed scream came from Miss Squires, who had descended halfway down the ladder. Inadvertently she had placed her hand against the ship’s side which was as hot as a waffle iron.
Wringing her burned hand, her raucous, high-pitched voice rising above all other sounds, she was telling the world her opinion of the captain, the officers and all on board, and having by the painful method of blistering her fingers, discovered the cause of her forced departure, she was calling down the wrath of Heaven on Jerry’s head for lying to her about the fire.
Her words were driving Mrs. Jardine into hysterics. Afraid to go down the steep gangway past the spot where the spinster had scorched her hand, and still more fearful of remaining on a ship which was afire, the woman was on the verge of collapse, and wailing: “Oh, dear, I’m a very sick woman! I’m sure I shall pass out!” She clung to the railings at the gangway head, an immovable, monumental mass of terror-paralyzed flesh and bone.
All efforts to mollify her, to calm her or to move her in vain. Below her, on the ladder, the Squires person was still holding forth, and Carmody was on the point of calling for a sling and tackle to lift the behemoth of a woman and swing her overside, when help came from an entirely unexpected quarter.
The factious mule, having kicked and bit his way to freedom, had dashed from the alleyway onto the forward deck, bowling over men as he went, and mad with terror at the smoke and steam about the glazing hatch, and seeking any road to safety, he now came snorting and galloping toward the group about the gangway. Instantly the officers and men scattered, leaping onto rails, dodging into doorways, and leaving the ponderous Mrs. Jardine alone. One terrified glance she gave at the oncoming mule, and with a piercing scream, took a step forward, tripped on her skirt, and, screaming at the top of her lungs, she shot down the ladder like a sack of meal down a chute.
Like an avalanche, she struck the spinster, and together the two tobogganed to the foot of the ladder where the large woman came to an abrupt stop. Her petticoats caught on a ringbolt, and her stanchion like legs waved helplessly over the edge of the landing stage, while the Squires woman was projected as if from a catapult and plunged, still grasping her umbrella, into the sea beside a shore boat. Spluttering and coughing, all the fight gone from her, she was dragged into the boat by the grinning Negroes, while Mr. Jardine, dishevelled and panting, and too dazed even to faint, was rolled into another craft.
Choking with laughter at the ludicrous scene, the men on deck strove in vain to suppress audible roars of hilarity, while the mule, reaching the after deck, plunged over the rail and swam for shore.
“Hoot, mon!” exclaimed Isbester, shaking with merriment, “fifty years I ha’ been to sea an’ never afore ha’ I seen passenger disembarkatin’ sae perceep’tately as yon female. Aye, ‘twas most amazin’ like launchin’ of a ship frae the ways.”
Carmody, his face purple with his efforts to control himself, pushed back his cap and wiped his streaming forehead with his handkerchief.
Thank the Almighty we’re rid of them,” he said, “and Heaven bless the mules.”