Thursday, September 17, 2015

Story: Eight Bells For Jonah

Was the Manx-man what gave the order, but we all done the deed. I was a foremast hand on a clipper out o' Baltimore, bound for the opium routes. She'd been built the same year, special, for Jonas Hart, son o' the magnate Thomas Hart. His first command. A maiden captain for a maiden ship. We the crew more'n balanced that out. Mate Thurston was nearing forty, overdue and overlooked for his own command, and none o' us common swabs had under five voyages to boast. Myself, I shipped first when I was fifteen—I'm twenty-two now an' getting hungry for land-life again. Been saving pay for a farm an' a wife.

The ship herself was fine enough, trim an' well-provisioned an' spankin' new. Couldn't say the same for her name. Never did fancy bringing no albatross into things without cause. Not that I'm superstitious. Just believe in caution, is all. But Captain Jonas, he named her, so we were the Albatross's crew.

Call to board came at Thursday noon, which weren't irregular. On Hart ships, it was common practice to bring t'crew aboard early. Gave a chance to sober up an' settle in, as well as finish tidying-up. My last voyage on a Hart ship, we spent two days holystoning the deck while business wound up ashore. Then on Sunday, the captain and mate went to services afore we sent sail.

Well, that weren't how things unfurled. Around seven bells o' the morning watch on Friday, Captain Jonas an' Mate Thurston came aboard arguin'. Whatever their disagreement, Captain Jonas must ha' won, for Mate Thurston looked grey at the gills. Some o' the crew stopped their work to try an' listen, but I just kept to my task. What the ship's aristocrats did 'mongst themselves were no concern of mine.

Then the captain gave t'order to cast off and make ready for the tide. Lord! There was a grumble from the crew. Any greenhorn ain't crossed the Equator knows it's unfit to set on a Friday. Invited all sorts o' calamity on a ship.

But we followed our orders anyway, an' left the harbor behind.

We made good headway for twelve days. At times, we cruised along at sixteen, seventeen knots. Yet for all that, some o' the crew whispered 'mongst themselves. One, an old Manx-man we called Red Charlie, held out that the captain were a Jonah, one of them what brings bad luck to ships. After all, Red Charlie'd say, he named this ship the Albatross, he ordered anchors weighed of a Friday, and his name were devilish close to "Jonah." I weren't swayed, myself. Seemed foolish to speak ill of a captain on his first command. All the same, I marked the captain, watched how Mate Thurston scarcely spoke to him. Once I saw Captain Jonas lean and be sick over the rail. Jonah or no, our captain belonged on land.

That night I ducked into the focsle hold—don't recollect why—an' found Mate Thurston with a bottle, powerful drunk. I recall thinking I was dreaming, but Thurston pulled me close and whispered.

"Thou knowest, man, I am a Quaker?" His eyes were lit like Saint Elmo's Fire in that gaunt face. "Yet I tellest thee, if such a fiend as thy captain—he be'st no captain of mine!—were to slip overboard in a squall, t'would be no great loss to this world!" He let me loose and slumped, the glare leaving his eyes. "He hath ruined me, sailor, ruined my hopes, and my daughter's."

Whatever I went into the focsle hold in search of, I left without. An hour or so later, Mate Thurston emerged, weaving a bit. He made no notice of me, but I observed him closelike. A real schooner of an idea had sailed into my head.

Next day, the sky above was the prettiest blue you could ask for, an' little white clouds just cruising 'cross the sky. Peeked in the officer's cabin, saw the glass were holding steady as we went. It was a dreamer of a day.

'Round first bell of the afternoon watch, the captain came out from his luncheon an' stood by the wheel. I'd charge o' the wheel an' kept her on course. Not five minutes went by 'fore the captain started whistling. Now any fools not to whistle on a ship, less you' re becalmed an' wanting for wind. To whistle when the wind's good is asking for trouble.

So I say real polite to the Captain, "Sir, best you not whistle. Bad luck, they say. Calling for storms or summat."

Well the captain did nothing but laugh—Lord! I remember him, his curly gold hair and how his eyes sparkled. He clapped me on the shoulder and went into his cabin, whistling all the way. For the rest o' my watch he'd stick his head out o' his cabin an' whistle at me, a big grin on his arrogant mug. It was always "Spanish Ladies," with a bit of a lilt.

Fool. Little by little that blue sky clouded over, till by the end o' first dog-watch, we'd a real roarer on our heels.

Wind started whipping an' the waves turned to whitecaps. Mate Thurston gave the order to lash down anything on deck. I wound up next to ol' Red Charlie the Manx-man. While we worked, I told him how the captain whistled, and glory did his face go pale. "Jonah," he muttered, and we didn't talk no more. The rain started falling.

By 8 bells o' second dog-watch, the sea was tossing us like a cat tosses a mouse. We'd furled in most o' the sails when the first bolt o' lightning hit. I was down on deck, but everything stopped when the light burst upon us. One o' the topriggers screamed an' fell. He hit before the thunderclap.

Ol' Red Charlie must've been passing the word, 'cause when that toprigger let go, every man jack of us turned toward the wheel where Mate Thurston fought to keep her on course, then to the cabin where our captain Jonas huddled safe and warm.

At first he was confused, when we pulled him out into the storm. But when Ol' Red Charlie came at 'im with the ropes, he started yelling an' struggling, calling to Thurston for help. Thurston didn't so much as look toward us, but I swear I saw the old man smile.  Just for a minute, Captain Jonas broke free an' bolted for his cabin. He emerged with a pistol an' we all dropped back in an arc across the deck. Thurston stayed at the wheel.

Captain Jonas jumped the gun from one o' us to another an' walked out a bit.

"Thurston," he yelled. "Leave the blood wheel and help me, blast you!"

Thurston kept the wheel.

Something snapped in Jonas, 'cause he whirled an' fired at Thurston, who dropped with a grunt. We were on our captain in a flash, bound him up an' beat him. Red Charlie an' two others got Mate Thurston into the cabin—I took the wheel.

Then Red Charlie emerged again an' whipped the crew into a frenzy. I didn't listen much—my mind was on fighting the sea—but I caught bits on the wind, about Jonah an' the Whale, an' whistling, an' leaving port on a Friday.

They hoisted up the captain, then, an' threw him into the sea. He cursed us all the way.

By end of first watch, the storm had gone. Red Charlie took the wheel from me with a nod, muttered, "The gods of the sea took their Jonah back."

I rubbed my arms. "Yeh, but Jonah lived, didn't he?"

The Manx-man had no response for that.

Before I went alow, I thought I'd see how bad Mate Thurston was hurt. He lay in bed in his cramped little sub-cabin of the captain's quarters. If he'd been gaunt the past night in the focsle hold, he was near skeleton now. Those fools hadn't dried him, so his clothes were drenched from sweat an' rain. All the same he was alert, an' must ha' recognized me.

"I fear I have led thee into sin, friend." His voice sounded whispy. He coughed an' I saw pink blood fleck his lips.

I shook my head. "It were the Manx-man. He whipped 'em up. Yeh couldn't ha' left the wheel."

"Thou'rt from Baltimore, yes?" He began to fumble under the edge of his mattress.

"Born an' raised, sir."

"Good." Thurston produced a pouch an' sealed letter. "Couldst thou…" He coughed weakly an' wiped away more blood. "Couldst thou deliver this to my daughter?"

I nodded again. That idea from before sailed back into sight. The pouch was full o' coins.

Thurston slumped and sighed. "My thanks, friend." His eyes drifted closed.

Lung-shot. I could tell from the bandage on his chest an' the pink blood—had seen many a lunged deer cough up that shade. He'd not last till morning. We'd no surgeon—Mate Thurston was our doctor.

I went to my bunk an' slept the sleep of the damned. While I slept, Mate Thurston passed into delirium. He died screaming of a great damp weight on his chest. That's what the Manx-man said.

In the morning we gave the mate a proper funeral, or as close to one as we could manage. After, we hacked out what to do. The Manx-man could read stars an' charts, an' we'd enough supplies to reach our port in India. It was there that things got prickly. If our stories weren't watertight, we'd be hung as the mutineers we were. There was no point going renegade—Hart would hunt us down. So we'd make a bold face of it.

By the time we reached Calcutta, the Manx-man had us reciting like schoolboys. The captain went over in the squall, an' our dead top-rigger killed Mate Thurston a few days later. I even wrote the log-book for those days.

We lost Red Charlie in Calcutta. He went over with the anchor. Never found his corpse, though.

Anyway, we handed The Albatross off to Hart's representative in Calcutta. There was an inquiry, of course. The log-book was examined, but there wasn't any of Thurston's writing to compare the book to. I made sure o' that. An' what mutinous crew would sail their ill-gotten ship into its destination port? Oh, there were murmurs, but what could they do? Clap us all into irons?

A new captain an' mate came aboard, an' I went ashore, having only signed on to bring her to India. A few others disembarked with me an' drifted into opium dens an' brothels. Me, I signed with a vessel bound for Salem. Made land last week, been traveling since. I heard The Albatross got sunk by the Chinese fleet for running opium. Good riddance to that cursed ship.

Funny. Some nights I wake up with a damp weight on my chest like Thurston screamed about. Other times I swear I hear Jonas Hart whistling. Just imagination, I reckon, or guilt. Either way, I'm taking Thurston's daughter his letter an' his gold. He said some sweet things to her in that letter, good fatherly advice. Even mentioned me.

I hope to settle down. Find a wife, get into an honest trade. Get away from the sea. The sea turns men to dark deeds. Passed a boy just now, whistling "Spanish Ladies."

Well, Baltimore's in sight. Let's hope there's wind on my heels, an' nothing else.