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First published in Pearson's Magazine, April 1898

Collected in:
The Adventures of Captain Kettle, Pearson's, London, 1898

This e-book edition: Roy Glashan's Library, 2019
Version Date: 2019-11-24
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The Adventures of Captain Kettle, 1898,
with "Mr. Gedge's Catspaw"


CAPTAIN OWEN KETTLE folded the letter-card, put it in his pocket, and re-lit his cigar. He drew paper towards him, and took out a stub of pencil and tried to make verse, which was his habit when things were shaping themselves awry, but the rhymes refused to come. He changed the metre: he gave up labouring to fit the words to the air of "Swanee River," and started fresh lines which would go to the tune of "Greenland's Icy Mountains," a rhythm with which at other times he had been notoriously successful. But it failed him now. He could not get the jingle; spare feet bristled at every turn; and the field of poppies on which his muse was engaged became every moment more and more elusive.

It was no use. He put down the pencil and sighed, and then, frowning at himself for his indecision, took out the letter-card again, and deliberately re-read it, front and back.

Captain Kettle was a man who made up his mind over most matters with the quickness of a pistol shot; and once settled, rightly or wrongly, he always stuck to his decision. But here, on the letter card, was a matter he could not get the balance of at all; it refused to be dismissed, even temporarily, from his mind; it involved interests far too large to be hazarded by a hasty verdict either one way or the other; and the difficulty in coming to any satisfactory conclusion irritated him heavily.

The letter-card was anonymous, and seemed to present no clue to its authorship. It was type-written; it was posted, as the stamp showed, in Newcastle; it committed its writer in no degree whatever. But it made statements which, if true, ought to have sent somebody to penal servitude; and it threw out hints which, true or untrue, made Captain Kettle heir to a whole world of anxiety and trouble.

It is an excellent academic rule entirely to disregard anonymous letters, but it is by no means always an easy rule to follow. And there are times when a friendly warning must be conveyed anonymously or not at all. But Kettle did not worry his head about the ethics of anonymous letter writing as a profession; his attention was taken up by this type-written card from "Wellwisher," which he held in his hand:

Your ship goes to sea never to reach port. There is an insurance robbery cleverly rigged. You think yourself very smart, I know, but this time you are being made a common gull of, or, if you like it better, a catspaw.

And the writer wound up by saying:

I can't give you any hint of how it's going to be done. Only I know the game's fixed. So keep your weather eye skinned, and take the "Sultan of Labuan" safely out and back, and maybe you'll get something more solid than a drink.


Your Well-wisher.

CAPTAIN Kettle was torn, as he read, by many conflicting sentiments. Loyalty to Mr. Gedge, his owner, was one of them. Gedge had sold him before, but that was in a way condoned by this present appointment to the Sultan of Labuan. And he wanted very much to know what were Mr. Gedge's wishes over the matter.

His own code of morality on this subject was peculiar. Ashore in South Shields he was as honest as a bishop; he was a strict chapel member; he did not even steal matches from the Captains' Room at Hallett's, his house of call, which has always been a recognised peculation. At sea he conceived himself to be bought, body and soul, by his owner for the time being, and was perfectly ready to risk body and soul in earning his pay.

But the question was, how was this pay to be earned?

Up till then he would have said: "By driving the Sultan of Labuan over the seas as fast as could be done on a given coal consumption; by ruthlessly keeping down expense; and, in fact, by making the steamer earn the largest possible dividend in the ordinary way of commerce." But this type written letter card hinted at other purposes, which he knew were quite within the bounds of possibility, and if he was being made into a catspaw— He hit the unfinished poems on the table a blow with his fist. "By James!" he muttered, "a catspaw? I didn't think of it in that light before. Well, we'd better have a clear understanding about the matter."


He hit the unfinished poems on the table a blow with his fist.

He got up, crammed the blue letter-card into his pocket, and took his cap.

"My dear!" he called down to Mrs. Kettle, who was engaged on the family wash in the kitchen below, "I've got to run up to the office to see Mr. Gedge. I don't think I quite understand his wishes about running the boat. Get your tea when it's ready. I don't want to keep you and the youngsters waiting."

Captain Kettle thought out many things as he journeyed from South Shields to the grimy office of his employer in Newcastle, but his data were insufficient, and he was unable to get hold of any scheme by which he could safely approach what was, to say the very least of it, a very delicate subject. Mr Gedge had hired him as captain of the Sultan of Labuan, had said no word about losing her, and how was he to force the man's confidence? It looked the most unpromising enterprise in the world. Moreover, although in the outer world he was as brave a fellow as ever lived, he had all a shipmaster's timidity at tackling a shipowner in his lair, and this, of course, handicapped him.

In this mood, then, he was ushered upon Gedge in his office, and saw him signing letters and casting occasional sentences to a young woman who flicked them down in shorthand.

The shipowner frowned. He was very busy. "Well Captain," he said, "what is it? Talk ahead. I can listen whilst I sign these letters."

"It's a private question I'd like to ask you about running the boat."

"Want Miss Payne to go out?"

"If I might trouble her so far."

Gedge jerked his head towards the door. "Type out what you've got," he said. The shorthand writer went out and closed the glass door after her. "Now, Kettle?"

Captain Kettle hesitated. It was an awkward subject to begin upon.

"Now then, Captain, out with it quick. I'm in the devil of a hurry."

"I wish you'd let me know a little more exactly—in confidence, of course—how you wish me to run this steamboat. Do you want me to—I mean—"

"Well, get on, get on."

"When do you want her back?"

Gedge leant back in his chair, tapped his teeth with the end of his pen. "Look here, Captain," he said, "you didn't come here to talk rot like this. You've had your orders already. You aren't a drinking man, or I'd say you were screwed. So there's something else behind. Come, out with it."

"I hardly know how to begin."

"I don't want rhetoric. If you've got a tale, tell it, if not—" Mr. Gedge leant over his desk again and went on signing his letters.

Captain Kettle stood the rudeness without so much as a flush. He sighed a little, and then, after another few moments' thought, took the letter-card from his pocket and laid it on his employer's table. After Gedge had conned through and signed a couple more sheets, he took the card up in his fingers and skimmed it over.

As he read, the colour deepened in his face, and Kettle saw that he was moved, but said nothing. For a moment there was silence between them, and Gedge tapped his teeth and was apparently lost in thought. Then he said, "Where did you get this?"

"Through the post."

"And why did you bring it to me?"

"I thought you might have something to say about it."

"Shown it to anyone else?"

"No, sir; I'm in your service, and earning your pay."

"Yes; I pulled you out of the gutter again quite recently, and you said you'd be able to get your wife's clothes out of pawn with your advance note."

"I'm very grateful to you for giving me the berth, sir, and I shall be a faithful servant to you as long as I'm in your employ. But if there's anything on, I'd like to be in your confidence. I know she isn't an old ship, but—"

"But what?"

"She's uneconomical. Her engines are old-fashioned. It wouldn't pay to fit her with triple expansions and new boilers."

"I see. You appear to know a lot about the ship, Captain—more than I do myself, in fact. I know you're a small tin saint when you're within hail of that Ebenezer, or Bethel, or whatever you call it here ashore, but at sea you've got the name for not being over-particular."

"At sea," said the little sailor with a sigh, "I am what I have to be. But I couldn't do that. I'm a poor man, sir; I'm pretty nearly a desperate man; but there are some kinds of things that are beyond me. I know it's done often enough, but—you'll have to excuse me. I can't lose her for you."

"Who's asking you?" said Gedge cheerily. "I'm not. Don't jump at conclusions, man. I don't want the Sultan of Labuan lost. She's not my best ship, I'll grant: but I can run her at a profit for all that; and even if I couldn't, I am not the sort of man to try and make my dividends out of Lloyd's. No, not by any means, Captain; I've got my name to keep up."

Captain Kettle brought up a sigh of relief. "Glad to hear it, sir; I'm glad to hear it. But I thought it best to have it out with you. That beastly letter upset me."

Gedge laughed slily. "Well, if you want to know who wrote the letter, I did myself."

Kettle started. He was obviously incredulous.

"Well, to be accurate, I did it by deputy. You hae yer doots, eh? Hang it, man; what an unbelieving Jew you are." He pressed one of the electric pushes by the side of his desk, and the shorthand writer came in and stood at the doorway.

"Miss Payne, you typed this letter-card, didn't you?" he asked, and Miss Payne dutifully answered "Yes."

"Thank you. That'll do. Well, Kettle, I hope you're satisfied now? I sent this blessed card because I wanted to see how deep this shore going honesty of yours went, which I've heard so much about; and now I know, and you may take it from me that you'll profit by it financially in the very near future. The shipmasters I've had to do with have been mostly rogues, and when I get hold of a straight man I know how to appreciate him. Now, good-bye, Captain, and a prosperous voyage to you. If you catch the mid- night mail to-night from here, you'll just get down to Newport tomorrow in time to see her come into dock. Take her over at once, you know; we can't have any time wasted. Here, good-bye. I'm frantically busy."

But, busy though he might be, Mr. Gedge did not immediately return to signing his letters after Captain Kettle's departure. Instead, he took out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead and wiped his hands, which for some reason seemed to have grown unaccountably clammy: and for awhile he lay back in his writing chair like a man who feels physically sick.

Captain Kettle, however, went his ways humming a cheerful air, and as the twelve o'clock mail roared out that night across the high-level bridge, he settled himself to sleep in his corner of a third-class carriage, and to dream the dreams of a man who, after many vicissitudes, has at last found righteous employment. It was a new experience for him and he permitted himself the luxury of enjoying it to the full.

A train clattered him into Monmouthshire some twelve hours later, and he stepped out on Newport platform into a fog raw and fresh from the Bristol Channel. His small, worn portmanteau he could easily have carried in his hand, but there is an etiquette about these matters which even hard-up shipmasters, to whom a shilling is a financial rarity, must observe; and so he took a four-wheeler down to the agent's office, and made himself known. The Sultan of Labuan, it seemed, had come up the Usk and gone into dock barely an hour before, and so Kettle, obedient to his orders, went down at once to take her over.

It was not a pleasant operation, this ousting another man from his livelihood, and as Kettle had been supplanted a weary number of times himself, he thought he knew pretty well the feelings of the man whom he had come to replace. His reception, however, surprised him. Williams, the former master of the Sultan of Labuan, handed over his charge with an air of obvious and sincere relief, and Kettle felt that he was being eyed with a certain embarrassing curiosity. The man was not disposed to be verbally communicative.

"You look knocked up," said Kettle.

"Might well be," retorted Captain Williams. "I haven't had a blessed wink of sleep since I pulled my anchors out of Thames mud."

"Not had bad weather, had you?"

"No, weather's been right enough. Bit thickish, that's all."

"What's kept you from having a watch below, then?"

"'Fraid of losing the ship, Captain. I never been up before the Board of Trade yet, and don't want to try what it feels like."

"Oh!" said Kettle, with a sigh, "it's horrible; they're brutes. I know. I have been there."

"So I might have guessed," said Williams drily.

"Look here," said Kettle, "what are you driving at?"

"No offence, Captain, no offence. I'll just shut my head now. Guess I've been talking too much already. Result of being over- tired, I suppose. Let's get on with the ship's papers. They are all in this tin box."

"But I'd rather you said out what you got to say."

"Thanks, Captain, but no. This is the first time we've met, I think?"

"So far as I remember."

"Well, there you are then; personally you no doubt are a very nice pleasant gentleman, but still there's no getting over the fact that you're a stranger to me; and anyway, you're in Gedge's employ, and I'm not; and there's a law of libel in this country which gets up and hits you whether you are talking truth or lies."

"English laws are beastly, and that's a fact."

"Reading about them in the paper's quite enough for me. Now, Captain, suppose we go ashore with these papers, and I can sign off and you can sign on. Afterwards we'll have a drop of whisky together, if you like, just to show there's no ill-will."

"You are very polite, Captain," said Kettle. "I'm sure I don't like the notion of stepping in to take away your employment. But if it hadn't been me, he'd have got someone else."

The other turned on him quickly.

"Don't think you're doing me a bad turn, Captain, because you aren't. I was never so pleased to step out of a chart-house in my life. Only thing is, I hope I aren't doing you a bad turn by letting you step in."

"By James!" said Kettle, "do speak plain, Captain; don't go on hinting like this."

"I am maundering on too much, Captain, and that's a fact. Result of being about tired out, I suppose. But you must excuse me speaking further: there's that confounded libel law to think about. Now, Captain, here's the key of the chart-house door, and if you'll let me, I'll go out first and you can lock it behind you. You'll find one of the tumblers beside the water-bottle broken; it fell out of my hand this morning just after I'd docked her; but all the rest is according to the inventory; and I'll knock off three-pence for the tumbler when we square up."

They plunged straightway into the aridities of business, and kept at it till the captaincy had been formally laid down and handed over, and then the opportunity for further revelations was gone.

Captain Williams was clearly worn out with weariness; responsibility had kept him going till then, but now that responsibility had ended he was like a man in a trance. His eyes drooped; his knees failed drunkenly; he was past speech; and if Kettle had not by main force dragged him off to a bed at a temperance hotel, he would have toppled down incontinently and slept in the gutter like one dead. As it was he lay on the counterpane in the heaviest of sleep, the picture of a strong man worn out with watching and labour, and for a minute or so Kettle stood beside the bed and gazed upon him thoughtfully.


Kettle stood beside the bed and gazed upon him thoughtfully.

"By James!" he muttered, "if I could make you speak, Captain, I believe you could tell a queerish tale."

But Kettle did not loiter by this taciturn bedside. He had signed on as master of the Sultan of Labuan; he was in Mr. Gedge's employ, and earning Mr. Gedge's pay; and every minute wasted on a steamer means money lost. He went briskly across to the South dock and set the machinery of business to work without delay. There was grumbling from mates, engineers, and crew that they had been given leisure for scarcely a breath of shore air, but Kettle was not a man who courted popularity with his underlings by offering them indulgences. He stated that their duty was to get the water ballast out and the coal under hatches in the shortest time on record, and mentioned that he was the man who would see it done.

The men grumbled, of course; behind their driver's back they swore; two deck hands and three of the stokehold crew deserted, leaving their wages, and were replaced by others from the shipping office; and still the work went remorselessly on, under the grey glow of the fog so long as the daylight lasted, and then under the glare of raw electric arc lamps. The air was full of gritty dust and the roar of falling coal. A waggon was shunted up, dandled aloft in hydraulic arms, ignominiously emptied end first, and then put to ground again and petulantly sent away to find a fresh load, whilst its successor was being nursed and relieved. Two hundred tons to the hour was what the hydraulic staith could handle, but for all that it did not break the coal unduly.

In the fore-hold the trimmers gasped and choked as they steered the black avalanches into place; and presently another of the huge staiths crawled up along the dock wall, and with a gasping tank-loco and a train of waggons in attendance, and then the Sultan of Labuan was being loaded through the after hatch also. It was a triumph of machinery and organisation, and tired men in a dozen departments cursed Kettle for keeping them at such a remorseless pressure over their tasks.

Down to her fresh-water Plimsol the steamer was sunk, and then the loading ceased. Even Kettle did not dare to overload. He knew quite well that there were the jealous eyes of a Seaman and Fireman's Union official watching him from somewhere on the quays, and if she was trimmed an inch above her marks the Sultan of Labuan would never be let go through the outer dock-gate. So the burden was limited to its legal bounds; and Kettle got his clearance papers with the same fierce, business-like bustle; and came back and stepped lightly up on to the tramp's upper bridge.

The pilot was there waiting for him, half admiring, half repelled; the old blue-faced mate and the carpenter were on the forecastle-head; the second mate was aft; the chief himself and the third engineer were at the throttle and the reversing gear below. The ship's entire complement had quite surrendered to the sway of this new task-master, and stood in their coal-grime and their tiredness ready to jump at his bidding.

Bristol Channel tides are high, and the current of the Usk is swift. It was going to be quick work if they did not miss the tide, and the pilot, who had no special stake in the matter, said it could not be done. Kettle, however, thought otherwise, and the pilot in consequence saw some seamanship which gave him chills down the back.

"By gum! Captain," he said, when they were fairly out of the river, "you can handle her."

"Wait till I know her, pilot, and then I'll show you."

"Haven't got nerves enough. Look you, Captain, you'll be having a bad crumple-up if you bustle a big loaded steamboat about docks at that rate."

"Never bent a plate in my life."

"Well, I hope you never will. Look you, now, you're a little tin wonder in the way of seamanship."

"Quartermaster," said Kettle, "tell my steward to bring two goes of whisky up here on the bridge. Pilot, if you say such things to me, you'll make me feel like a girl with a new dress, and I want a drop of Dutch courage to keep my blushes back."

"Well," said the pilot when the whisky came, "here's lots of cargo, Captain, and good bonuses."

"Here's deep-draught steamers for you, pilot, and plenty of water under 'em."

The whisky drained down its appointed channels, and the pilot said: "By the bye, I've this for you, Captain," and brought out a letter-card.

"Typewritten address," said Kettle. "No postmark on the stamp. Who's it from?"

"Man I came across. Look you, though, I didn't know him; but he said there was a useful tip in the letter which it would please you to have after you sailed."

Kettle tore off the perforated edges, and looked inside the card. Here was another anonymous communication, also from "Well- wisher," and, as before, warning him against the machinations of Gedge. "Got no idea who the man was who gave it you?" he asked.

"Well, I did have a bit of talk with him and a drink, and I rather gathered he might have had something to do with insurance; but he didn't say his name. Why, isn't he a friend of yours?"

"I rather think he is," said Kettle; "but I can't be quite sure yet." He did not add that the anonymous writer guaranteed him a present of 50 if the Sultan of Labuan drew no insurance money till he had moored her in Port Said.

From the very outset the voyage of the Sultan of Labuan was unpropitious. Before she was clear of the Usk it was found that three more of her crew had managed to slip away ashore, and so were gone beyond replacement. Whilst she was still in the brown, muddy waters of the Bristol Channel, there were two several breakdowns in the engine-room which necessitated stoppages and anxious repairs. The engines of the Sultan of Labuan were her weak spot, for otherwise her hull was sound enough. But these machines were old, and wasteful in steam, and made all the difference in economy which divides a profit from a loss in these modern days of fierce sea competition.

With Murgatroyd, the old blue-faced mate, Kettle had been shipmates before, and there existed between the two men a strong dislike and a certain mutual esteem. They interviewed over duty matters when the pilot left. "Mr. Murgatroyd," said the little skipper, "you'll keep hatches off, and do everything for ventilation. This Welsh coal's as gassy as petroleum."

"Ay, aye," rumbled the mate; "but how about when heavy weather comes, and the decks are full of water?"

"You'll have fresh orders from me before then. Get hoses to work now and sluice down. The ship's a pig-stye!"

"Ay, aye; but the hands are dog-tired."

"Then it's your place to drive them. I should have thought you'd been long enough at sea to know that. But if you aren't up to your business, just say, and I'll swop you over with the second mate right now."

The old mate's face grew purpler. "If you want a driver," he said, "you shall have one;" and with that he went his ways and roused the tired deck-hands to work, after the time-honoured methods.

But if Captain Kettle did not spare his crew, he was equally hard on himself. He was at sea now and wearing his sea-going conscience, which was an entirely different piece of mental mechanism from that which regulated his actions ashore. He had received Mr. Gedge's precise instructions to run the coal boat in the ordinary method, and he intended to do it relentlessly and to the letter.

He had had his doubts about Mr. Gedge's real wishes before, and even the episode of Miss Payne, the typewriter, had not altogether deceived him; but the second letter from "Well- wisher," which the pilot brought on board, cleared the matter up beyond a doubt. There was not the faintest chance that Gedge had written that; there was not the faintest reason to disbelieve now that Gedge wished his uneconomical steamboat off his hands, and had arranged for her never again to come into port.

Now, properly approached—say with sealed orders to be opened only at sea—I think there is very little doubt but what Captain Kettle would have undertaken to carry out this piece of nefarious business himself. The average mariner thinks no more of "making the insurance pay" than the average traveller does of robbing his fellow countrymen by the importation of Belgian cigars and Tauchnitz novels from a Channel packet. And with Kettle, too, loyalty to an employer, so long as that employer treated him squarely, ranked high. But for a second time "Well- wisher" had repeated the word "catspaw," and for his purpose he could not have used a better spur. The little captain s face grew grim as he read it. "By James!" he muttered, "if that's the game he's trying to play, I'll make him rue it."

However, though at the beginning of a voyage it may be easy to make a resolve like this, it is not so easy to carry it into practical effect. If the machinery was on board, human or otherwise, for making the Sultan of Labuan fail to reach port, it was not at all probable that Kettle would find it before he saw it in working order. When arrangements for a bit of barratry of this kind are gone about nowadays, they are performed with shrewdness. Your ingenious gentleman, who makes a devil of clockwork and guncotton to blow out a steamer's bottom, or makes a compact with one of her crew to open the bilge-cocks, is dexterous enough to cover up his trail very completely, having a wholesome awe of the law of the land, and a large distaste for penal servitude.

Moreover, Captain Owen Kettle was not the man to receive gratuitous information on such a point from his underlings. To begin with, he was the Sultan of Labuan's captain, and, by the immemorial etiquette of the sea, a ship's captain is always a man socially apart. He is a dictator for the time being, with supreme power of life and death; is addressed as "Sir"; and would be regarded with social awe and coldness by his own brother, if the said brother were on board as one of the mates or one of the assistant engineers.

With the chief engineer alone, although he does not sit at meat with him, may a merchant captain unbend, and with the chief of the Sultan of Labuan Kettle had picked a difference over a commission on bunkering not ten minutes after he had first stepped on board. He had the undoubted knack of commanding men; he could look exactly after his employer's property; but he had an unfortunate habit for making himself hated in the process.

Over that initial episode of washing the coal-grime from the ships' outer fabric, he had already come into intimate contact with his crew. The tired deck-hands had refused duty; clumsy old Murgatroyd had endeavoured to force them into it in his usual way, and had been knocked down in the scuffle and trampled on; when up came Kettle, already spruce and clean, and laid impartially into the whole grimy gang of them with a deck- scrubber. They were new to their little skipper's virtues, and thought at first that they would treat him as they had already treated the fat old mate, and as a consequence bleeding faces and cracked heads were plentiful, and curses went up, bitter and deep, in half the tongues of Europe. But Kettle still remained spruce and clean, and aggressive and untouched.


Kettle laid impartially into the whole grimy gang with a deck-scrubber.

It takes some art thoroughly to thrash a dozen savage full- grown men with a light broom without breaking the stick or knocking off the head, and the crew of the Sultan of Labuan were not slow to recognise their Captain's ability. But at the same time they were not inspired with any overpowering love for him.

In the course of that night an iron belaying-pin whisked out of the darkness, and knocked off his cap as he stood on the upper bridge, and just before the dawn a chunk of coal whizzed up and smashed itself into splinters on the wheelhouse wall, not an inch from his ear. But as Kettle replied to the first of these compliments by three prompt revolver shots almost before the thrower had time to think, and rushed out and caught the second assailant by the neck-scruff and forced him to eat up every scrap of coal that had been thrown, the all-nation crew decided that he was too ugly to tackle usefully, and tacitly agreed to let him alone for the future, and to do their lawful work. The which, of course, was exactly what Kettle desired.


Kettle replied by three prompt revolver shots.

By this time the Sultan of Labuan had run down the Cornish coast, had rounded Land's End, and was standing off on a course which would make Finisterre her next land-fall. The glass was sinking steadily; the seascape was made up of blacks and whites and lurid greys; but though the air was cold and raw, the weather was not any worse than need have been expected for the time of year. The hatches were off, and a good strong smell of coal-gas billowed up from below and mingled with the sea scents.

With all a northern sailor's distrust for a "Dago," Kettle had spotted his spruce young Italian second mate as Gedge's probable tool, and watched him like the apple of his eye. No man's actions could have been more innocent and normal, and this, of course, made things all the more suspicious. The engineer staff, who had access to the bilge-cocks, and could arrange disasters to machinery, were likewise, ex-officio, suspicious persons, but as it was quite impossible to overlook them at all hours and on all occasions, he had regretfully to take them very largely on trust.

Blundering, incompetent old Murgatroyd, the mate, was the only man on board in whose honesty Kettle had the least faith, simply because he considered him too stupid to be intrusted with any operation so delicate as barratry, and to Murgatroyd he more or less confided his intentions.

"I hear there's a scheme on board to scuttle this steamboat," he said, "because she's too expensive to run. Well, Mr. Gedge, the owner, gave me orders to run her, and he told me he made a profit on her. I'm going by Mr. Gedge's words, and I'm going to take her to Port Said. And let me tell you this: if she stops anywhere on the road, and goes down, all hands go down with her, even if I have to shoot them myself. So they'd better hear what's in the wind, and have a chance to save their own skins. You understand what I mean?"

"Ay," grunted the mate.

"Well, just let word of it slip out—in the right way, you understand."

"Ay, aye. Hadn't we better get the hatches on and battened down? She's shipping it green pretty often now, and the weather's worsening. There's a good slop of water getting down below, and they say it's all the bilge pumps can do to keep it under."

"Mr. Meddle Murgatroyd," Kettle snapped, "are you master of this blamed ship, or am I? You leave me to give my orders when I think fit, and get down off this bridge."

"Ay," grunted the mate, and waddled clumsily down below.

The old man's suggestion about the hatches had touched upon a sore point. Kettle knew quite well that it was dangerous to leave the great gaps in the deck undefended by planking and tarpaulin. A high sea was running, and the heavily-laden coal-boat rode both deep and sodden. Already he had put her a point and a half to westward of her course, so as to take the on-coming seas more fairly on the bow.

But still he hung on to the open hatches. The coal below was gassy to a degree, and if the ventilation was stopped it would be terribly liable to explosion. The engine and boiler rooms were bulkheaded off, and there was no danger from these; but the subtle coal gas would spread over all the rest of the vessel's living quarters—as the smell hinted—and a carelessly lit match might very comfortably send the whole of her decks hurtling into the air. Kettle had no wish to meet Mr. Gedge's unspoken wishes by an accident of this sort.

However, it began to be plain that as they drew nearer to the Bay the weather worsened steadily, and at last it came to be a choice between battening down the hatches both forward and aft, or being incontinently swamped. Hour after hour Kettle in his glistening oilskins had been stumping backwards and forwards across the upper bridge, watching his steamboat like a cat, and holding on with his order to the very furthest moment. But at last he gave the command to batten down, and both watches rushed to help the carpenter carry it out. The men were horribly frightened. It seemed to them that in that gale, and with that sea running, it was insane not to have battened her down long before.

The hands clustered on the lurching iron decks with the water swirling against them waist-high, and shipped the heavy hatch covers, and got the tarpaulins over; and then the Norwegian carpenter keyed all fast with the wedges, working dike some amphibious animal half his time under water.

The Sultan of Labuan carried no cowl ventilators to her holds, and even if these had been fitted they would have been carried away. So from the moment of battening down, the gas which oozed from the coal mixed with the air till the whole ship became one huge explosive bomb, which the merest spark would touch off. Captain Kettle called his mate to him and gave explicit orders.

"You know what a powder hulk is like, Mr. Mate?"

"Ay," said Murgatroyd.

"Well, this ship is a sight more dangerous, and we have got to take care if we do not want to go to Heaven quick. It's got to be 'all lights out' aboard this ship till the weather eases and we can get hatches off again. Go round now and see it done yourself, Mr. Murgatroyd, please. Watch the doctor dowse the galley fire, and then go and take away all the forecastle matches so the men can't smoke. Put out the side lights, the masthead light, and the binnacle lamps. Quartermasters must steer as best they can from the unlit card."

"Ay, aye. But you don't mean the side lights, too, do ye? There's a big lot of shipping here in the Bay, and we might easy get run down"—"The old man caught an ugly look from Kettle's face and broke off. And grumbling some ancient saw about "obeying orders if you break owners," he shuffled off down the ladder.

Heavier and heavier grew the squalls, carrying with them spindrift which beat like gravel against the two oil-skinned tenants of the collier's upper bridge; worse and worse grew the sea. Great green waves reared up like walls, crashed on board, and filled the lower decks with boiling, yeasty surge. The funnel-stays and the scanty rigging hummed like harp strings to the gale.

Deep though she was in the water, there were times when her stern heaved up clear, and the propeller raced in a noisy catherine-wheel of fire and foam. On every side, ahead, abeam, and astern, were nodding yellow lights, jerked about by unseen ships over thunderous, unseen waves. It was a regular Biscay gale, such as all vessels may count on in that corner of the seas one voyage out of eight, a gale with heavy seas in the midst of a dense crowd of shipping. But there was nothing in it which seamanship under ordinary circumstances could not meet.

Captain Kettle hung on hour after hour under shelter of the dodgers on the upper bridge, a small, wind-brushed figure in yellow oilskins and black rubber thigh boots. About such a "breeze" in an ordinary way he would have thought little. Taking his vessel through it with the minimum of danger was only part of the daily mechanical routine. But he stood there, a prey to the liveliest anxiety.

The thousand and one dangers in the Bay appeared before him magnified. If the ship for any sudden and unavoidable reason went down, the odds were that he himself and all hands would be drowned; but at the same time Gedge would be gratified in so easily touching the coveted insurance money. The fear of death did not worry the little skipper in the very least degree whatever, but he had a most thorough objection to being in any way Mr. Gedge's catspaw.

Twice they had near escapes from being run down. The first time was from a sudden blundering Cardiff ore steamer, which was driving north through the thick of it, with very little of herself showing except two stumpy masts and a brine-washed smokestack. She would have obviously drowned out any look-out on her fore deck, and the bridge officers got too much spindrift in their eyes to see with any clearness. But time is money, and even Cardiff ore steamers must make passages, and so her master drove her blindly ahead full steam, slap-slop-wallow, and trusted that other people would get out of his way.

Kettle's keen eyes picked her up out of the sea mists just in time, and ported his own helm, and missed her sheering bow with the Sultan of Labuan's quarter by a short two fathoms. A touch in that insane turmoil of sea would have sent both steamers down to the shells and the flickering weed below; but there was no touch, and so each went her way with merely a perfunctory interchange of curses, which were blown into nothingness by the gale. Escapes on these occasions don't count, and it is etiquette not to speak about them ashore afterwards.

The second shave was from a big white-painted Cape liner, which came up from astern, lit like a theatre, and almost defying the very gale itself. Her look-outs and officers were on the watch for lights. But the unlit collier, which was half her time masked by the seas like a half-tide rock, never struck their notice.

Kettle, with all a shipmaster's sturdy dislike for shifting his helm when he legally had the right of the road, held on till the great knife-like bow was not a score yards from his taffrail. But then he gave way, roared out an order to the quartermaster at the wheel, and the Sultan of Labuan fell away to starboard. As if the coal-boat had been a magnet, the Cape liner followed, drawing nearer hand over fist.

Changing direction further was as dangerous as keeping on as he was, so Kettle bawled to the quartermaster to "Steady on that," and then the great, white steam-hotel suddenly seemed to wake to her danger, and swerved off on her old course again. So close were they, that Kettle fancied he could hear the quick, agitated rattle of her wheel engines as they gave her a "hard down" helm. And he certainly saw officers on her high upper- bridge peering at him through the drifting sea-smoke with a curiosity that was more than pleasant.

"Trying to pick out the old tub's name," he mused grimly, "so as to report me for carrying no lights. By James, I wish some of those dandy passenger-boat officers could try this low-down end of the tramping trade for a bit."

Night went and day came, grey, and wet, and desolate. The heavier squalls had passed away, but a whole gale still remained, and the sea was, if anything, heavier. The coal-boat rarely showed all of herself at once above the waters. Her progress was a succession of dives, her decoration (when she was visible) a fringe of spouting scuppers. Watch had succeeded watch with the dogged patience of sailor-men; but watch after watch Kettle hung on behind the canvas dodgers at the weather end of the bridge. He was red-eyed and white-checked, his torpedo beard was foul with sea salt, he was unpleasant to look upon, but he was undeniably very much awake, and when the accident came (which he concluded was Mr. Gedge's effort to realise the coal-boat's insurance), he was quite ready to cope with emergencies.

From somewhere in the bowels of the ship there came the muffled boom of an explosion; the bridge buckled up beneath his feet, so that he was very nearly wrenched from his hold; and the iron main deck, which at that moment happened to be free of water, rippled and heaved like a tin biscuit-box moves when it is kicked. There was a tinkle of broken glass as some blown-out skylights crashed back upon the deck.

He looked forward and he looked aft, and to his surprise he saw that both hatches were still in place, and that very little actual damage was visible, and then he had his attention occupied by another matter. From the stokehold, from the forecastle and from the engine-room the frightened crew poured out into the open, and some scared wretch cried out to "lower away zem boats."

Here was a situation that needed dealing with at once, and Kettle was the man to do it. From beneath his oilskins he lugged out the revolver which they knew so painfully already, and showed it with ostentation. "By James!" he shouted, "do you want to be taught who's captain here? I'll give cheap lessons if you ask."

His words reached them above the hooting and brawl of the gale, and they were cowed into sullen obedience.

"Carpenter, take a couple of men and away below with you and see what's broke. You blessed split-trousered mechanics, away down to your engine-room or I'll come and kick you there. The second mate and his watch get tarpaulins over those broken skylights. Where's Mr. Murgatroyd? In his bunk, I suppose, as usual: not his watch: no affair of his if the ship's blown to Heaven when he's off duty. Here, steward, go and turn out Mr. Murgatroyd."

The men bustled about after their errands, and the engines, which had stopped for a minute, began to rumble on again. Captain Kettle paraded the swaying bridge and awaited developments.

Presently the bare-headed steward fought his way up the bridge-ladder against the tearing wind, an bawled out some startling news. "It's Mr. Murgatroyd's room that's been blown up, sir. 'E's made a 'orrid mess of. Chips says 'e picked up 'is lighted pipe in the alley way, sir, ant it must 'a' been 'im that fired the gas."

"The blamed old thickhead," said Kettle savagely.

"'E was arskin' for you, sir, was the mate, though we couldn't rightly make out what 'e said."

"He won't be pleased to see me. Smoking, by James! was he!"

"The mate's burnt up like a piece of coke," said the steward persuasively. "'E cawn't last long."

The carpenter came up on the bridge. "Dose blowup vas not so bad for der old ship, sir. She nod got any plates started dot I can see. Dey have der bilge-pumps running, but dere's nod much water. Und der mate, sir. He say he vould like to see you. He's in ver' bad way."

"All right," said Kettle, "I'll go and see him." He called up the Italian second mate on to the bridge and gave over charge of the ship to him, and then went below.

The author of all the mischief, the stupid old man, who through sheer crass ignorance had gone to bed and smoked a pipe in this powder mine, lay horribly injured in the littered alley- way, with a burst straw cushion under the shocking remnants of his head. Most of his injuries were plain to the eye, and it was a marvel that he lingered on at all. It was very evident that he could not live for long, and it was clear, too, that he wanted to speak.

Kettle's resentment died at the sight of this poor charred cinder of humanity, and he knelt on the litter and listened. The sea noises and the ship noises without almost drowned the words, and the old mate's voice was very weak. It was only here and there he could pick up a sentence.

"Nearly got to wind'ard of you, skipper ... It was me ... Gedge paid me fifty pound for the job ... scuttle her ... after Gib... would 'a' done it, too ... in spite of your blooming teeth."

The old fellow broke off, and Kettle leant near to him. "How were you going to scuttle her?" he asked.

There was no answer. A second time he repeated the question, and then again a third time. The mate heard him. The sea roared outside, the wind boomed overhead, the cluttered wreckage clanged about the alley-way. The old man was past speech, but he opened an eye, his one remaining eye, and slowly and solemnly winked.

It was his one recorded attempt at humour during a lifetime, and the effort was his last. His jaw dropped, wagging to the thud of the ship, his eye opened in a glassy, unseeing stare, and he was as dead a thing as the iron deck he lay upon.

"Well, matey," said Kettle, apostrophising the poor charred form, "we've been shipmates before, but I never liked you. But, by James! you had your points. You shall be buried by a pukka parson in Gib., and have a stone put over your ugly old head, if I have to pay for it myself. I think I can hammer out a bit of verse, too, which'll make that stone a thing people will remember.

"By James! though, won't Gedge be mad over this! Gedge will think I spotted the game you were plotting for him, and murdered you out of hand. Well that's all right, and it won't hurt you, matey. I want Gedge to understand I'm a man that's got to be dealt straight with. I want Mr. Blessed Gedge to understand that I'm not the kind of lamb to make into a catspaw by any manner of means. I bet he does tumble to that, too. But I bet also that he sacks me from this berth before I've got the coals over into the lighters at Port Said. By James! yes, Gedge is a man that sticks to his plans, and as he can't lose the Sultan of Labuan with me as her skipper, he'll jerk another old man into the chart-house on the end of a wire, who'll do the job more to his satisfaction."

The Norwegian carpenter came up, and asked a question.

"No, no, Chips; put the canvas away. I want you to knock up some sort of a box for the poor old Mate, and we'll take him to Gib., and plant him there in style. I owe him a bit. We'll all get safe enough to Port Said now."


Roy Glashan's Library
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