by W. W. Jacobs
“There’s no doubt about it,” said the night watchman, “but what dissipline’s a very good thing, but it don’t always act well. For instance, I ain’t allowed to smoke on this wharf, so when I want a pipe I either ‘ave to go over to the ‘Queen’s ‘ed,’ or sit in a lighter. If I’m in the ‘Queen’s ‘ed’ I can’t look arter the wharf, an’ once when I was sitting in a lighter smoking the chap come aboard an’ cast off afore I knew what he was doing, an’ took me all the way to Greenwich. He said he’d often played that trick on watchmen.
“The worst man for dissipline I ever shipped with was Cap’n Tasker, of the _Lapwing_. He’d got it on the brain bad. He was a prim, clean-shaved man except for a little side-whisker, an’ always used to try an’ look as much like a naval officer as possible.
“I never ‘ad no sort of idea what he was like when I jined the ship, an’ he was quite quiet and peaceable until we was out in the open water. Then the cloven hoof showed itself, an’ he kicked one o’ the men for coming on deck with a dirty face, an’ though the man told him he never did wash becos his skin was so delikit, he sent the bos’en to turn the hose on him.
“The bos’en seemed to take a hand in everything. We used to do everything by his whistle, it was never out of his mouth scarcely, and I’ve known that man to dream of it o’ nights, and sit up in his sleep an’ try an’ blow his thumb. He whistled us to swab decks, whistled us to grub, whistled us to every blessed thing.
“Though we didn’t belong to any reg’ler line, we’d got a lot o’ passengers aboard, going to the Cape, an’ they thought a deal o’ the skipper. There was one young leftenant aboard who said he reminded him o’ Nelson, an’ him an’ the skipper was as thick as two thieves. Nice larky young chap he was, an’ more than one o’ the crew tried to drop things on him from aloft when he wasn’t looking.
“Every morning at ten we was inspected by the skipper, but that wasn’t enough for the leftenant, and he persuaded the old man to drill us. He said it would do us good an’ amuse the passengers, an’ we ‘ad to do all sorts of silly things with our arms an’ legs, an’ twice he walked the skipper to the other end of the ship, leaving twenty-three sailor-men bending over touching their toes, an’ wondering whether they’d ever stand straight again.
“The very worst thing o’ the lot was the boat-drill. A chap might be sitting comfortable at his grub, or having a pipe in his bunk, when the bos’en’s whistle would scream out to him that the ship was sinking, an’ the passengers drownding, and he was to come an’ git the boats out an’ save ’em. Nice sort o’ game it was too. We had to run like mad with kegs o’ water an’ bags o’ biscuit, an’ then run the boats out an’ launch ’em. All the men were told off to certain boats, an’ the passengers too. The only difference was, if a passenger didn’t care about taking a hand in the game he didn’t, but we had to.
“One o’ the passengers who didn’t play was Major Miggens. He was very much agin it, an’ called it tomfoolery; he never would go to his boat, but used to sit and sneer all the time.
“‘It’s only teaching the men to cut an’ run,’ he said to the skipper one day; ‘if there ever was any need they’d run to the boats an’ leave us here. Don’t tell me.’
“‘That’s not the way I should ha’ expected to hear you speak of British sailors, major,’ ses the skipper rather huffy.
“‘British _swearers_,’ ses the major, sniffing. ‘You don’t hear their remarks when that whistle is blown. It’s enough to bring a judgment on the ship.’
“‘If you can point ’em out to me I’ll punish ’em,’ says the skipper very warm.
“‘I’m not going to point ’em out,’ ses the major. ‘I symperthise with ’em too much. They don’t get any of their beauty sleep, pore chaps, an’ they want it, every one of ’em.’
“I thought that was a very kind remark o’ the major to make, but o’ course some of the wimmin larfed. I s’pose they think men don’t want beauty sleep, as it’s called.
“I heard the leftenant symperthising with the skipper arter that. He said the major was simply jealous because the men drilled so beautifully, an’ then they walked aft, the leftenant talking very earnest an’ the skipper shaking his head at something he was saying.
“It was just two nights arter this. I’d gone below an’ turned in when I began to dream that the major had borrowed the bos’en’s whistle an’ was practising on it. I remember thinking in my sleep what a comfort it was it was only the major, when one of the chaps give me a dig in the back an’ woke me.
“‘Tumble up,’ ses he, ‘the ship’s afire.’
“I rushed up on deck, an’ there was no mistake about who was blowing the whistle. The bell was jangling horrible, smoke was rolling up from the hatches, an’ some o’ the men was dragging out the hose an’ tripping up the passengers with it as they came running up on deck. The noise and confusion was fearful.
“‘Out with the boats,’ ses Tom Hall to me, ‘don’t you hear the whistle?’
“‘What, ain’t we going to try an’ put the fire out?’ I ses.
“‘Obey orders,’ ses Tom, ‘that’s what we’ve got to do, an’ the sooner we’re away the better. You know what’s in her.’
“We ran to the boats then, an’, I must say, we got ’em out well, and the very fust person to git into mine was the major in his piejammers; arter all the others was in we ‘ad ‘im out agin. He didn’t belong to our boat, an’ dissipline is dissipline any day.
“Afore we could git clear o’ the ship, however, he came yelling to the side an’ said _his_ boat had gone, an’ though we prodded him with our oars he lowered himself over the side and dropped in.
“Fortunately for us it was a lovely clear night; there was no moon, but the stars were very bright. The engines had stopped, an’ the old ship sat on the water scarcely moving. Another boat was bumping up against ours, and two more came creeping round the bows from the port side an’ jined us.
“‘Who’s in command?’ calls out the major.
“‘I am,’ ses the first mate very sharp-like from one of the boats.
“‘Where’s the cap’n then?’ called out an old lady from my boat, ‘o’ the name o’ Prendergast.’
“‘He’s standing by the ship,’ ses the mate.
“‘Doing _what?_’ ses Mrs. Prendergast, looking at the water as though she expected to see the skipper standing there.
“‘He’s going down with the ship,’ ses one o’ the chaps.
“Then Mrs. Prendergast asked somebody to be kind enough to lend her a handkerchief, becos she had left her pocket behind aboard ship, and began to sob very bitter.
“‘Just a simple British sailor,’ ses she, snivelling, ‘going down with his ship. There he is. Look! On the bridge.’
“We all looked, an’ then some o’ the other wimmin wanted to borrer handkerchiefs. I lent one of ’em a little cotton waste, but she was so unpleasant about its being a trifle oily that she forgot all about crying, and said she’d tell the mate about me as soon as ever we got ashore.
“‘I’ll remember him in my prayers,’ ses one o’ the wimmin who was crying comfortable in a big red bandana belonging to one o’ the men.
“‘All England shall ring with his deed,’ ses another.
“‘Sympathy’s cheap,’ ses one of the men passengers solemnly. ‘If we ever reach land we must all band together to keep his widow an’ orphans.’
“‘Hear, hear,’ cries everybody.
“‘And we’ll put up a granite tombstone to his memory,’ ses Mrs. Prendergast.
“‘S’pose we pull back to the ship an’ take him off,’ ses a gentleman from another boat. ‘I’m thinking it ‘ud come cheaper, an’ perhaps the puir mon would really like it better himself.’
“‘Shame,’ ses most of ’em; an’ I reely b’leeve they’d worked theirselves up to that pitch they’d ha’ felt disapponted if the skipper had been saved.
“We pulled along slowly, the mate’s boat leading, looking back every now and then at the old ship, and wondering when she would go off, for she’d got that sort o’ stuff in her hold which ‘ud send her up with a bang as soon as the fire got to it; an’ we was all waiting for the shock.
“‘Do you know where we’re going, Mr. Bunce?’ calls out the major.
“‘Yes,’ ses the mate.
“‘What’s the nearest land?’ asks the major.
“‘Bout a thousand miles,’ ses the mate.
“Then the major went into figgers, an’ worked out that it ‘ud take us about ten days to reach land and three to reach the bottom o’ the water kegs. He shouted that out to the mate; an’ the young leftenant what was in the mate’s boat smoking a big cigar said there’d be quite a run on granite tombstones. He said it was a blessed thing he had disinherited his children for marrying agin his wishes, so there wouldn’t be any orphans left to mourn for him.
“Some o’ the wimmin smiled a little at this, an’ old Mrs. Prendergast shook so that she made the boat rock. We got quite cheerful somehow, and one of the other men spoke up and said that owing to his only having reckoned two pints to the gallon, the major’s figgers wasn’t to be relied upon.
“We got more cheerful then, and we was beginning to look on it as just a picnic, when I’m blest if the mate’s boat didn’t put about and head for the ship agin.
“There was a commotion then if you like, everybody talking and laughing at once; and Mrs. Prendergast said that such a thing as one single-handed cap’n staying behind to go down with his ship, and then putting the fire out all by himself after his men had fled, had never been heard of before, an’ she believed it never would be again. She said he must be terribly burnt, and he’d have to be put to bed and wrapped up in oily rags.
“It didn’t take us long to get aboard agin, and the ladies fairly mobbed the skipper. Tom Hall swore as ‘ow Mrs. Prendergast tried to kiss him, an’ the fuss they made of him was ridiculous. I heard the clang of the telegraph in the engine-room soon as the boats was hoisted up, the engines started, and off we went again.
“‘Speech,’ yells out somebody. ‘Speech.’
“‘Bravo!’ ses the others. ‘Bravo!”
“Then the skipper stood up an’ made ’em a nice little speech. First of all he thanked ’em for their partiality and kindness shown to him, and the orderly way in which they had left the ship. He said it reflected credit on all concerned, crew and passengers, an’ no doubt they’d be surprised when he told them that there hadn’t been any fire at all, but that it was just a test to make sure that the boat drill was properly understood.
“He was quite right about them being surprised. Noisy, too, they was, an’ the things they said about the man they’d just been wanting to give granite tombstones to was simply astonishing. It would have taken a whole cemetery o’ tombstones to put down all they said about him, and then they’d ha’ had to cut the letters small.
“I vote we have an indignation meeting in the saloon to record our disgust at the cap’n’s behaviour,’ ses the major fiercely. ‘I beg to propose that Mr. Macpherson take the chair.’
“‘I second that,’ ses another, fierce-like.
“‘I beg to propose the major instead,’ ses somebody else in a heasy off-hand sort o’ way; ‘Mr. Macpherson’s boat not having come back yet.’
“At first everybody thought he was joking, but when they found he was really speaking the truth the excitement was awful. Fortunately, as Mrs. Prendergast remarked, there was no ladies in the boat, but there was several men passengers. We were doing a good thirteen knots an hour, but we brought up at once, an’ then we ‘ad the most lovely firework display I ever see aboard ship in my life. Blue lights and rockets and guns going all night, while we cruised slowly about, and the passengers sat on deck arguing as to whether the skipper would be hung or only imprisoned for life.
“It was daybreak afore we sighted them, just a little speck near the sky-line, an’ we bore down on them for all we was worth. Half an hour later they was alongside, an’ of all the chilly, miserable-looking men I ever see they was the worst.
“They had to be helped up the side a’most, and they was so grateful it was quite affecting, until the true state o’ things was explained to them. It seemed to change ’em wonderful, an’ after Mr. Macpherson had had three cups o’ hot coffee an’ four glasses o’ brandy he took the chair at the indignation meeting, an’ went straight off to sleep in it. They woke him up three times, but he was so cross about it that the ladies had to go away an’ the meeting was adjourned.
“I don’t think it ever came to much after all, nobody being really hurt, an’ the skipper being so much upset they felt sort o’ sorry for ‘im.
“The rest of the passage was very quiet an’ comfortable, but o’ course it all came out at the other end, an’ the mate brought the ship home. Some o’ the chaps said the skipper was a bit wrong in the ‘ed, and, while I’m not gainsaying that, it’s my firm opinion that he was persuaded to do what he did by that young leftenant. As I said afore, he was a larky young chap, an’ very fond of a joke if he didn’t have to pay for it.”