OIL UPON THE WATERS
The strength of fifteen thousand horses was driving the great Black Star liner Roanoke across the Atlantic toward New York. Her promenade decks, as long as a city block, swarmed with cabin passengers, while below them a thousand immigrants enjoyed the salty wind that swept around the bow. Far above these noisy throngs towered the liner's bridge as a little world set apart by itself. Full seventy feet from the sea this airy platform spanned the ship, so remote that the talk and laughter of the decks came to it only as a low murmur. The passengers were forbidden to climb to the bridge, and they seldom thought of the quiet
men in blue who, two at a time, were always pacing that canvas-screened pathway to guide the Roanoke to port.
Midway of the bridge was the wheel-house, in which a rugged quartermaster seemed to be playing with the spokes set round a small brass rim while he kept his eyes on the swaying compass card before him. The huge liner responded like a well-bitted horse to the touch of the bridle rein, for the power of steam had been set at work to move the ponderous rudder, an eighth of a mile away.
A lad of seventeen years was cleaning the brasswork in the wheel-house. Trimly clad in blue, his taut jersey was lettered across the chest with the word CADET. When in a cheerful mood he was as wholesome and sailorly a youngster to look at as you could have found afloat, but now he was plainly discontented with his task as with sullen frown and peevish haste he finished rubbing the speaking-tubes with cotton waste. Then as he caught up his kit he burst out:
"If my seafaring father could have lived to watch me at this fool kind of work, he'd have
been disgusted. I might better be a bell-boy in a hotel ashore at double the wages."
The quartermaster uneasily shifted his grip on the wheel and growled:
"The old man's on the bridge. No talkin' in here. Go below and tell your troubles to your little playmates, sonny."
Young David Downes went slowly down the stairway that led to the boat deck, but his loafing gait was quickened by a strong voice in his ear:
"Step lively, there. Another soft-baked landsman that has made up his mind to quit us, eh?"
The youth flushed as he flattened himself against the deck house to make room for the captain of the liner who had shrewdly read the cadet's thoughts. As he swung into the doorway of his room the brown and bearded commander flung back with a contemptuous snort: "Like all the rest of them—no good!"
It was the first time that Captain Thrasher had thought it worth while to speak to the humble cadet who was beneath notice among the four hundred men that made up the crew of the Roanoke. From afar, David had viewed
this deep-water despot with awe and dislike, thinking him as brutal as he was overbearing. Even now, as he scurried past the captain's room, he heard him say to one of the officers:
"Take the irons off the worthless hounds, and if they refuse duty again I will come down to the fire room and make them fit for the hospital."
The cadet shook his fist at the captain's door and moved on to join his companions in the fore part of the ship. He was in open rebellion against the life he had chosen only a month before. Bereft of his parents, he had lived with an uncle in New York while he plodded through his grammar-school years, after which he was turned out to shift for himself. He had found a place as a "strong and willing boy" in a wholesale dry-goods store, but his early boyhood memories recalled a father at sea in command of a stately square-rigger, and the love of the calling was in his blood. There were almost no more blue-water Yankee sailing ships and sailors, however, and small chance for an ambitious American boy afloat.
Restlessly haunting the wharves in his leisure hours, David had happened to discover that the famous Black Star Line steamers were compelled by act of Congress to carry a certain number of apprentices or "cadets," to be trained until they were fit for berths as junior officers. The news had fired him with eagerness for one of these appointments. But for weeks he faced the cruel placard on the door of the marine superintendent's office:
NO CADETS WANTED TO-DAY
At last, and he could hardly believe his eyes, when he hurried down from the Broadway store during the noon hour, the sign had been changed to read:
TWO CADETS WANTED
Partly because he was the son of a ship-master and partly because of his frank and manly bearing, David Downes was asked for his references, and a few days later he received orders to join the Roanoke over the heads of thirty-odd applicants. Now he was completing his first round voyage and, alas! he had almost
decided to forsake the sea. He was ready to talk about his grievances with the four other cadets of his watch whom he found in their tiny mess room up under the bow.
"I just heard the old man threaten to half kill a couple of firemen," angrily cried David. "He is a great big bully. Why, my father commanded a vessel for thirty years without ever striking a seaman. Mighty little I'll ever learn about real seafaring aboard this marine hotel. All you have to do is head her for her port and the engines do the rest. Yet the captain thinks he's a little tin god in brass buttons and gold braid."
An older cadet, who was in his second year aboard the liner, eyed the heated youngster with a grim smile, but only observed:
"You must stay in steam if you want to make a living at sea, Davy. And as for Captain Stephen Thrasher—well, you'll know more after a few voyages."
A chubby, rosy lad dangled his short legs from a bunk and grinned approval of David's mutiny as he broke in:
"There won't be any more voyages for this
bold sailor boy. Acting as chambermaid for paint and brasswork doesn't fill me with any wild love for the romance of the sea. We were led aboard under false pretences, hey, David?"
"Me, too," put in another cadet. "I'm going to make three hops down the gangway as soon as we tie up in New York."
"So I am the only cadet in this watch with sand enough to stick it out," said their elder. "You are a mushy lot, you are. I'm going on deck to find a man to talk to."
As the door slammed behind him, David Downes moodily observed:
"He has no ambition, that's what's the matter with him." But after a while David grew tired of the chatter and horse-play of the mess room and went on deck to think over the problem he must work out for himself. Was it lack of "sand" that made him ready to quit the calling he had longed for all his life? Would he not regret the chance after he had thrown it away? But the life around him was nothing at all like the pictures of his dreams, and he was too much of a boy to look beyond the present. His ideas of the sea were
colored through and through by the memories of his father's career. He had come to hate this ugly steel monster crammed with coal and engines, which ate up her three thousand miles like an express train.
As he leaned against the rail, staring sadly out to sea, the sunlight flashed into snowy whiteness the distant royals and top-gallant sails of a square-rigger beating to the westward under a foreign flag. The boy's eyes filled with tears of genuine homesickness. Yonder was a ship worthy of the name, such as he longed to be in, but there was no place in her kind for him or his countrymen. A brown paw smote David's shoulder, and he turned to see the German bos'n. The cadet brushed a hand across his eyes, ashamed of his emotion, but the kind-hearted old seaman chuckled:
"Vat is it, Mister Downes? You vas sore on the skipper and the ship, so?"
David answered with a little break in his voice:
"It is all so different from what I expected, Peter."
"You stay mit us maybe a dozen or six voyages," returned the other, "and you guess again, boy. I did not t'ink you vas a quitter."
"But this isn't like going to sea at all," protested David.
"You mean it ist not a big man's work?" shouted the bos'n. "Mein Gott, boy, it vas full up mit splendid kinds of seamanship, what that old bundle of sticks and canvas out yonder never heard about. I know. I vas in sailin' vessels twenty years."
The bos'n waved a scornful hand at the passing ship. But David could not be convinced by empty words, and long after the bos'n had left him, he wistfully watched the square-rigger slide under the horizon, like a speck of drifting cloud.
There had been bright skies and smooth seas during the outward passage to Dover and Antwerp, and although the season was early spring the Roanoke had reached mid-ocean on her return voyage before the smiling weather shifted. When David was roused out to stand his four-hour watch at midnight, the liner was plunging into head seas which broke over the
forward deck and were swept aft by a gale that hurled the spray against her bridge like rain. The cadet had to fight his way to the boat deck to report to the chief officer. Climbing to the bridge he found Captain Thrasher clinging to the railing, a huge and uncouth figure in dripping oil-skins. It was impossible to see overside in the inky darkness, while the clamor of wind and sea and the pelting fury of spray made speech impossible.
The cadet crouched in the lee of the wheel-house while the night dragged on, now and then scrambling below on errands of duty until four o'clock sounded on the ship's bell. Then he went below, drenched and shivering, to lie awake for some time and feel the great ship rear and tremble to the shock of the charging seas.
When he went on deck in daylight, he was amazed to find the Roanoke making no more than half speed against the storm. The white-crested combers were towering higher than her sides, and as he started to cross the well deck a wall of green water crashed over the bow, picked him up, and tossed him against a hatch,
where he clung bruised and strangling until the torrent passed. It was the sturdy bos'n who crawled forward and fetched the boy away from the ring-bolt to which he was hanging like a barnacle. As soon as he had gained shelter, David gasped:
"Did you ever see a storm as bad as this, Peter?"
"It is a smart gale of wind," spluttered the bos'n, "and two of our boats vas washed away like they vas chips already. But maybe she get worse by night."
On his reeling bridge Captain Thrasher still held his post, after an all-night vigil. The cadet was cheered at the sight of this grim and silent figure, no longer a "fair-weather sailor," but the master of the liner, doing his duty as it came to him, braced to meet any crisis. The men were going about their work as usual, and David began cleaning the salt-stained brass in the wheel-house.
When he looked out again, the chief officer was waving his arm toward the dim, gray skyline, and at sight of David he beckoned the lad to fetch him his marine glasses. Captain
Thrasher also clawed his way to the windward side of the bridge and stared hard at the sea. The two men shouted in each other's ears, then resumed their careful scrutiny of the tempest-torn ocean in which David could see nothing but the racing billows. Presently the chief officer shook his head and folded his arms as if there was nothing more to be said or done.
After a while David made out a brown patch of something which was tossed into view for an instant and then vanished as if it would never come up again. If it were a wreck it seemed impossible that any one could be left alive in such weather as this. As the Roanoke forged slowly ahead, the drifting object grew more distinct. With a pair of glasses from the rack in the wheel-house, David fancied he could make out some kind of a signal streaming from the splintered stump of a mast. Captain Thrasher was pulling at his brown beard with nervous hands, but he did not stir from his place on the bridge. Presently he asked David to call the third officer. There was a consultation, and fragments of speech were blown
to the cadet's eager ears: "No use in trying to get a boat out.... God help the poor souls ... she'll founder before night...."
Could it be that the liner would make no effort to rescue the crew of this sinking vessel, thought David. Was this the kind of seamanship a man learned in steamers? He hated Captain Thrasher with sudden, white-hot anger. He was only a youngster, but he was ready to risk his life, just as his father would have done before him. And still the liner struggled on her course without sign of veering toward the wreck whose deck seemed level with the sea.
The forlorn hulk was dropping astern when Captain Thrasher buffeted his way to the wheel-house and stood by a speaking-tube. As if he were working out some difficult problem with himself, he hesitated, and said aloud:
"It is the only chance. But I'm afraid the vessel yonder can't live long enough to let me try it."
The orders he sent below had to do with tanks, valves, pipes, and strainers. David could not make head or tail of it. What had the engineer's department to do with saving
life in time of shipwreck? Stout-hearted sailors and a life-boat were needed to show what Anglo-Saxon courage meant. The cadet ran to the side and looked back at the wreck. He was sure that he could make out two or three people on top of her after deck house, and others clustered far forward. They might be dead for all he knew, but the pitiful distress signal beckoned to the liner as if it were a spoken message. When David went off watch he found a group of cadets as angry and impatient as himself.
"He ought to have sent a boat away two hours ago," cried one.
"I'd volunteer in a minute," exclaimed another. "The old man's lost his nerve."
The bos'n was passing and halted to roar:
"Hold your tongues, you know-noddings, you. A boat would be smashed against our side like egg-shells and lose all our people. If the wedder don't moderate pretty quick, it vas good-by and Davy Jones's locker for them poor fellers."
But the cadets soon saw that Captain Thrasher was not running away from the wreck, even though he was not trying to send aid. The
Roanoke was hovering to leeward as if waiting for something to happen. It was heart-breaking to watch the last hours of the doomed vessel. At last Captain Thrasher was ready to try his own way of sending help. The oldest cadet who was in charge of the signal locker came on deck with an armful of bunting. One by one he bent the bright flags to a halliard; they crept aloft, broke out of stops, and snapped in the wind. David, who had studied the international code in spare hours, was able to read the message:
Will stand by to give you assistance.
Only the iron discipline that ruled the liner from bridge to fire room kept the cadets from cheering. David expected to see a boat dropped from the lofty davits, but there were no signs of activity along the liner's streaming decks. It looked as if Captain Thrasher would let those helpless people drown before his eyes.
After a little the Roanoke began to swing very slowly off her course. Then as the seas began to smash against her weather side, she rolled until it seemed as if her funnels must be jerked out by the roots. Inch by inch, however, she
crept onward along the arc of a mile-wide circle of which the wreck was the centre. Even now David did not at all understand what the captain was trying to do. The great circle had been half-way covered before the cadet happened to notice that a band of smoother water was stretching to leeward of the steamer, and that as if by a miracle the huge combers were ceasing to break. An eddying gust brought him a strong smell of oil, and he went to the rail and stared down at the sea. The Roanoke heaved up her black side until he saw smears of a yellow liquid trickle from several pipes, and spread out over the frothing billows in shimmering sheets.
Slowly the Roanoke plunged and rolled on her circular course until she had ringed the wreck with a streak of oily calm. But still no efforts were made to attempt a rescue. The night was not far off. The gray sky was dusky and the horizon was shutting down nearer and nearer in mist and murk. Once more the liner swung her head around as if to steer a smaller circle about the helpless craft. In an agony of impatience David was praying that she might
stay afloat a little longer. Clear around this second and smaller circuit the liner wallowed until two rings of oil-streaked calm were wrapped around the wreck. Now surely, Captain Thrasher would risk sending a boat. But the bearded commander gave no orders and only shook his head now and then, as if arguing with himself.
Then for the third and last time the Roanoke began to weave a path around the water-logged hulk, which was so close at hand that the castaways could be counted. One, two, three aft, and three more sprawled up in the bow. One or two of them were waving their arms in feeble signals for help. A great sea washed over them, and one vanished forever. It was cruel beyond words for those who were left alone to have to watch the liner circle them time after time.
The stormy twilight was deepening into night when this third or inner circle was completed. The onset of the seas was somewhat broken when it met the outside ring of oil. Then rushing onward, the diminished breakers came to the second protecting streak and their menace
was still further lessened. Once more the sea moved on to attack the wreck, and coming to the third floating barrier the combers toppled over in harmless surf, such as that which washes the beach on a summer day when the wind is off shore.
It was possible now for the first time to launch a boat from the lee side of the liner, if the help so carefully and shrewdly planned had not come too late. Landlubber though he was, and convinced beforehand that there was no room for seamanship aboard a steamer, David Downes began to perceive the fact that Captain Thrasher knew how to meet problems which would have baffled a seaman of the old school. But even while the third officer was calling the men to one of the leeward boats, the sodden wreck dove from view and rose so sluggishly that it was plain to see her life was nearly done. The hearts of those who looked at her almost ceased to beat. It could not be that she was going to drown with help so near. As the shadows deepened across the leaden sea, David forgot that he was only a cadet, forgot the discipline that had taught him to think only
of his own duties, and rushing toward the boat he called to the third officer:
"Oh, Mr. Briggs, can't I have an oar? I can pull a man's weight in the boat. Please let me go with you."
The ruddy mate spun on his heel and glared at the boy as if about to knock him down. Just then a Norwegian seaman hung back, muttering to himself as if not at all anxious to join this forlorn hope. The mate glanced from him to the flushed face and quivering lip of the stalwart lad. Mr. Briggs was an American, and in this moment blood was thicker than water.
"Pile in amidships," said he. "You are my kind, youngster."
Mr. Briggs shoved the Norwegian headlong, and David leaped into the boat just as the creaking falls began to lower her from the davits. The boat swung between sea and sky as the liner rolled far down to leeward and back again. Then in a smother of broken water the stout life-boat met the rising sea, the automatic tackle set her free, and she was shoved away in the nick of time to escape being shattered against the steamer.
As the seven seamen and the cadet tugged madly at the sweeps and the boat climbed the slope of a green swell, Mr. Briggs shouted:
"She can't last much longer. Lay into it, my buckos. Give it to her. There's a woman on board, God bless her. I can see her skirt. No, it's a little girl. She's lashed aft with the skipper. Now break your backs. H-e-a-v-e a-l-l!"