Four Bells. A Tale of the Caribbean Four Bells. A Tale of the Caribbean

Four Bells. A Tale of the Caribbean

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CHAPTER I

THE VOICE OF THE SPANISH MAIN

The romance of the sea! Damned rubbish, he called it. The trade of seafaring was one way to earn a living. This was about all you could say for it. He had been lured into the merchant service as the aftermath of an enlistment in the Naval Reserve for the duration of the war. There was a great hurrah, as you will recall, over the mighty fleet of new cargo ships which were to restore the Stars and Stripes to blue water—Columbia’s return to the ocean, and all that—a splendid revival of the days of Yankee ships and sailors of long ago—a career for ambitious, adventurous American youth.

This was true enough until the bubble broke. The painful malady of deflation suddenly afflicted the world’s commerce. Much of Columbia’s mighty fleet rusted at its moorings. Ambitious American youth walked the streets in quest of jobs afloat or relinquished the sea to the Briton and the Scandinavian. It could not be said that the nation was deeply stirred by this calamity. In a manner of speaking, it had long since turned its back to the coast and could not be persuaded to face about.

This Richard Cary was one of the young men who had not been cast high and dry by the ebb tide of maritime affairs. No auspicious slant of fortune favored him. He earned what came to him in the way of employment and promotion. All he knew was the hard schooling of North Atlantic voyages in bull-nosed brutes of war-built freighters that would neither steam nor steer.

During the period of booming prosperity, the supply of competent officers fell far short of the demand. Any ancient mariner with a master’s license and fairly sound legs could get a ship. Foreign skippers were given “red ink tickets” and shoved aboard big American steamers.

The iron discipline and austere traditions of the sea were jeered at by motley crews, alien and native-born, who had easier work and better treatment than sailormen had ever known. Mutiny ceased to be sensational. Noisy Slavs preached Bolshevism in the forecastle. Every dirty loafer had a grievance. Ships limped into port with drunken stokers who refused to ply shovel and slice-bar unless they happened to feel like it. Wise gentlemen ashore diagnosed it as the poison of social unrest.

Amid these turbulent conditions, such an officer as Richard Cary was worth his weight in gold. For one thing, the Navy had hammered into his soul certain ideas which he declined to regard as obsolete. These pertained to order, fidelity, and obedience as essential to the conduct of a ship. He was a young man unvexed by complex emotions. Life consisted in doing the day’s work well, and the Lord help the subordinate who held opinions to the contrary.

It was a doctrine which had vouchsafed its own rewards. At twenty-five years of age he was chief officer of a ten-thousand-ton steamer of the Shipping Board fleet. There was something more to this rapid advancement than the old-fashioned virtues referred to. A natural aptitude for the sea was a large factor. Linked with this was a strong serenity of temper that few besetments could ruffle. Chief Officer Richard Cary moved on his appointed way with a certain ponderous momentum of mind and body.

He was sprung from that undiluted pioneer stock which is still to be found in the rural New England that is remote from the wash of later immigration. It was the English strain, fair-haired and blue of eye, that throws back to the Saxon blood. There had been men of rare height and bulk among his ancestors. This was his goodly inheritance, that his head should brush the ceiling beams of his cabin on shipboard and his shoulders fill the width of the doorway. Mutinous or sulky sailors ceased to bluster about their rights when this imperturbable young man laid hands on them. This was not often necessary. What he called moral suasion was enough to quell a very pretty riot. He had this uncommon gift of leadership, of mastering men and circumstances, when he was compelled to display it.

There was lacking, however, the driving power of ambition, the keen-edged ardor that cuts its way through obstacles to reach a destined goal. This large placidity of outlook betokened a dormant imagination, a sort of spiritual inertia. There was no riddle of existence, so far as he was concerned. The romance and mystery of the sea? Silly yarns written by lubbers for landsmen to read! They ought to jam across the Western Ocean in the dead of winter with a doddering old fool of a skipper on the bridge and a crew of rotten scoundrels who deserved to be hung.

While enthusiastic crusaders were proclaiming the glorious resurgence of the American merchant marine, surplus tonnage began to pile up in every port. Richard Cary’s huge scow of a freighter could find no cargo and was condemned to idleness with a melancholy squadron of her sister craft. The chief officer decided to look around a bit before seeking another berth. One or two offers came from shipping men who knew him by reputation. Already he stood out from the crowd. Waterfront gossip had passed along various tales of the reign of law and order upon the decks which big Dick Cary trod. He was no cursing, bullying bucko mate, mind you. Six and a half feet of soothing influence is a fairer phrase.

Home he went to the New Hampshire farm for a respite from the hard toil of the sea. In February it was, and the bleak hills wore their deep blankets of snow. His younger brother drove him in a pung to the white house snuggled close to the ground which had sheltered six generations of Carys. It made his back ache merely to look at the miles of stone wall which, as a clumsy young giant, he had helped to keep in repair.

“I guess going to sea is easier than this,” said brother Bill. “You seem to have done mighty well for yourself, I’ll tell the world. Any chance for me?”

“Not a chance,” replied the deep, leisurely accents of brother Dick. “Seafaring is all shot to pieces. You stand by your mother and look after the farm till you are ready to go to the agricultural college. I’ll pay for it.”

“Plenty of excitin’ stories to tell us, I s’pose. Your picture was in the papers, Dick, after your ship came into New York with four men in irons. It said you subdued ’em. What with, I want to know.”

“I read poetry to ’em, Bill, and distributed bouquets of cut flowers. They seemed grateful. So mother is as spry as ever and working her head off because she likes it.”

“Yep, she sure does make me snap out, Dick. And I bet she takes no back talk from you.”

“I’m scared already,” grinned the herculean mariner. “Watch her start a rough house if I track in any snow.”

He strode up the path to the granite doorstep and whisked up the wiry little woman who wore a best black gown and a white apron. Into the house he carried this trifling burden and set her down in a rush-bottomed chair by the fireplace.

“Bless me, Richard,” she cried, “that’s a trick you learned from your father that’s dead and gone! I used to tell him it was dreadful undignified. Of course he didn’t have your heft, but there was no ruggeder man in the village. Do you realize it’s been a whole year since you came home last?”

“Couldn’t break away, mother. A mate has to drive like a n****r when a ship is in port. Has Bill been taking good care of you? Any complaints and I’ll wallop the kid.”

“William is a quick and willing boy,” was the maternal verdict—“not so easy and good-natured as you—more inclined to be fretty when things go wrong.”

“You always called me lazy,” laughed the elder son, “and a nuisance under foot.”

“I dunno as I was far wrong, Richard,” was the severe rejoinder, “but we all have our failings. You have been a generous boy to your widowed mother. My land, you must have sent me ’most all your pay. I’ve been as careful as I could with it, and the account in the savings bank makes me feel real rich. Of course it belongs to you.”

“Forget it,” Richard growled amiably, waving a careless hand of imposing dimensions. “I’ll eat you out of house and home in the next fortnight. What about a whole pie right now?”

“Too much pie is bad for you between meals,” she firmly announced. “I’ll go cut you a reasonable piece. And don’t you let me hear you make a fuss about it.”

“Not me,” he sighed. “I know better.”

Contentedly he submitted to this fond tyranny. After all, home was the only place where folks cared whether a man lived or died. He was in every respect so unlike this high-strung, unflagging wisp of a mother of his that the contrast amused him. She was a Chichester and ran true to type. Most of the women wore themselves out in middle age. Her energy burned like a flame. Idleness was a sin.

In her turn she was perplexed by this strapping son of hers. He was rated as a highly successful young man, and yet, in her opinion, he lacked both zeal and industry—cardinal tenets of her New England creed. Sprawled upon the cushioned settle, he would drowsily stare at the fire for hours on end. He read very little and was not a loquacious person. An excellent listener, however, his mother’s eager chatter about little things broke against his massive composure like ripples upon a rock.

Now and then, in oddly silent moments, she studied him intently. Rugged, like his father, but there resemblance strangely halted. Matthew Cary’s frame had been gaunt, his features harsh and shrewd with the enduring imprint of the Puritan tradition. Richard, the son, might have belonged to another race of men. The fair skin, the ruddy cheek roughened by strong winds and salt spray, the hair like minted gold, were unfamiliar among the recent generations of Carys and Chichesters.

Handsome as a picture and as big as all outdoors, reflected the canny mother with a thrill of pride, but she actually felt like boxing his ears to wake him up. There was no soft streak in him, no weak fiber. This much she knew. His record at sea confirmed it. To call him hulking was absurd. There was courage in the level, tranquil gaze, and resolution was conveyed by the firm lips that smiled so readily.

“What in the world do you think about when you sit there like a bump on a log?” impatiently exclaimed the mother. “Is it a girl? William has suffered from those moon-struck spells now and then, but at his age it’s no more serious than chicken-pox.”

“There’s never been a girl that I thought of very long,” dutifully answered Richard, his pipe between his teeth. “I’m not so anxious to meet the right one. Going to sea is poor stuff for a married man. They mean well enough, but I have seen too many lonely skippers and mates raising hell ashore.”

“Don’t you swear in this house, Richard. And I advise you to beware of low company. Sailors who have been properly brought up are true to their sweethearts and wives, like all decent folks.”

“Yes’m,” murmured her worldly young giant. “If Bill ground the axe, as I told him to, I guess I’ll go and cut two or three cords of that pine growth. I need to limber up.”

“Then please stop at the gate and get the mail, Richard. It must be in the box by this time. And don’t you let that axe slip and cut your foot. I know you’re a wonderful chopper, just like your father, but I always fret—”

“Aye, mother. You never saw a man so careful of his own skin. At sea, now, I run no risks at all.”

“Richard, you are joking. Please don’t cross the pond. The ice is melted thin and rotten with this February thaw. You might fall in and catch your death o’ cold.”

Chief Officer Cary, veteran of the North Atlantic trade, promised to avoid getting wet in the pond. Axe on his shoulder, he passed through the lane to the highway. In the box nailed to a gatepost he found a letter from a seafaring friend in New York. It appeared to interest him. After a hasty glance, he read it with more care. What it said was this:

My dear Dick:

I don’t know what your plans are. If you have a job already cinched you are a lucky stiff. You can’t throw a brick in this port without hitting an idle shipmaster. So far I haven’t been chucked on the beach. The port captain of the Union Fruit Company is an old friend of mine. I told him about you yesterday. He needs a second officer in a passenger boat, the Tarragona, on the run to Kingston, Cartagena, and so on. Fine people to work for. None better. You may turn up your nose at the notion of going second mate, but they can’t keep a good man down. The Tarragona sails next Wednesday. Wire me if you care to run down and size it up. Better come early and avoid the rush. The Spanish Main ahoy!

Faithfully yours

L. J. P.

Richard Cary let the axe rest against the gate while he pondered in his deliberate fashion. At first it had annoyed him to think of stepping down a peg. He had been looking forward to command in two or three years more. But times were hard and the tenure of employment in cargo steamers uncertain. He might be shifting about, from one company to another, and if freight rates dropped much lower he would be likely to join the luckless mob of stranded officers.

There was a prospect of advancement in the Union Fruit Company’s service. A second mate’s pay would meet his modest needs, with a surplus to send home. An easier life, decent men to handle, a smart, efficient ship—these were arguments not to be tossed aside. So much for the practical aspect of it. This was overshadowed, however, by the desire to make the southern run. It was more like an urgent impulse. Until now, voyaging in the tropic zones had never appealed to him. He had a Western Ocean sailor’s pride in fighting bitter gales and pounding seas.

Rather puzzled by his quick surrender to this summons, he turned back to the house and forgot to pick up the axe. He walked briskly, chin up, a man astir and efficient. Queer how a few lines of that letter had thrilled his matter-of-fact mind! He liked the sound of Cartagena and the Spanish Main. Where the devil was Cartagena? He knew there was a port of that name on the coast of Spain. This other one was somewhere in the Caribbean, down Colombia way, as he vaguely recalled.

Into the kitchen swung Richard Cary and demanded to know where the atlas was kept. His mother wiped the flour from her hands and exclaimed:

“First time I ever saw you in a hurry about anything except your meals. What under the sun ails you?”

“Outward bound—the night train for New York. I want to find out where I go from there.” His mellow voice rang through the low-studded rooms. His mother was dismayed. The sea had called her towering son and he was a different being. Almost timidly she said:

“But you expected to make a longer visit, Richard. Why, you aren’t really rested up. You sat around here—”

“And enjoyed every minute of it,” he broke in, with a boyish laugh. “Now I’m going south in a banana boat, where the flying fishes play. Do I have to pull this house down to break out the atlas?”

“Mercy sakes, no! It’s under the Bible on the parlor table where it has set for years. There’s yellow fever and snakes down there, and how are you off for summer underwear?”

With his chin in his hand he pored over the map of the Caribbean and the sailing tracks across that storied sea. Jamaica and the Isthmus of Panama! Thence his finger moved along the coast to Cartagena and Santa Marta and La Guayra. His kindled fancy played around the words. They were like haunting melody. It was an emotion curiously novel. To find anything like it, he had to hark back to the fairy tales of childhood.

The feeling passed. His mother’s anxious accents recalled him to himself.

“But is it necessary, Richard, for you to rush off and take a second officer’s position? Why don’t you wait for something better? It’s not a mite like you to fly off at a tangent like this. Common sense was always your strongest point.”

“This is just the berth I want, I tell you,” said he. “It sounds new and interesting. Now if you will help me get my dunnage together—clean clothes and so on—where’s Bill?”

“Gone to the village on an errand, Richard,” was the meek answer. “He will be back in plenty of time to drive you to the train. Well, I’ve seen you wake up for once. Is this the way you boss men around on a ship?”

“For Heaven’s sake, I didn’t mean to sound rough, mother dear. I can move lively when something has to be done. And I don’t want to lose the chance of sailing in this Tarragona.”

The details of departure arranged, he resumed his wonted humor, care-free and easy. His mother wept a little when the sound of sleigh-bells heralded the approach of William in the pung. There had been other partings like this, however, and she briskly waved a handkerchief from a window as he rode away. She still had her qualms about those outlandish ports, but he had solemnly sworn to shake the scorpions out of his shoes before putting them on, and this gave her some small comfort.

Young William fired a volley of questions on the road to the station, but his big brother had little to say. The spell of the Caribbean had faded. It was merely another job in a different ship. This lazy reticence irritated William who burst out:

“Sometimes you act as if you were dead from the neck up, Dick. You go to sleep in your tracks like a regular dumb-bell. Where’s your pep and punch if you’re such a blamed good officer? I’m entitled to talk plain, seeing as it’s all in the family. Don’t you ever get mad?”

“Quite peevish at times, Bill. There was a cabin steward last voyage who brought me cold water to shave with, two days running. I hated to do it, but I had to beat him to death with a hairbrush and throw his body overboard. He left a wife and seven children in Sweden and begged piteously for his life. Discipline, Bill! You have simply got to enforce it.”

William snorted with disgust. He was off this big lump of a brother, he said to himself, who treated him like a silly kid. The train was late, and while they waited at the station a stray dog wandered along the platform. It was no vagrant cur, but a handsome collie which had somehow lost its master and was earnestly trying to find him. The plight was enough to inspire sympathy in the heart of any man that loved a good dog.

“Take him home and keep him until you can ’phone around and stick up a notice in the post-office, Bill,” said Richard Cary.

Before William could catch the collie, the express train came thundering down. One of the loungers on the platform emitted a loud guffaw and tossed a bit of stick between the rails of the track. The collie rushed to retrieve it. Richard Cary cursed the man and yelled at the dog which bravely snatched the stick and fled to safety, escaping destruction by no more than the length of its plumed tail. It stood quivering in every nerve, nuzzling Richard’s hand.

“Put my bags aboard, Bill,” said the mariner. “I have a little business to attend to. It will take only a minute.”

William concluded to hover within sight and sound. His brother’s face was white as he moved closer to the man who had attempted to slay a dog in wanton sport. The offender was heavily built, with a truculent air, a stranger to the village. His coarse visage reflected alarm, but before he could fight or retreat his right arm was caught and twisted back in a grip that made him scream with pain.

A bone snapped. It would be some time before he could throw sticks with that right arm. Beside himself with rage and anguish, he bellowed foul abuse.

“Shut your dirty mouth,” commanded Richard Cary. “You are getting off easy.”

The tortured blackguard was given time to utter one more obscene insult. An open palm smote his face. It was a buffet so tremendous that the victim was fairly lifted from his feet. He pitched into the snow at the edge of the platform and lay huddled without motion.

“Good God-amighty, Dick, you busted that guy’s neck,” gasped William as he tugged at his brother’s sleeve. “And all you did was slap him. If you want to hop this train, you’d better hustle.”

“Broke his neck? No such luck,” growled Richard. “If he wants to see me again, tell him to wait till I come back. All right, Bill. Let’s go.”

He stooped to pat the head of the affectionate collie and ran to swing on board of the moving train. William had a farewell glimpse of his face at the window. Again it was ruddy and good-humored. The smile was a little wistful, almost like that of a boy leaving home for the first time. The younger brother stood staring after the train. His thoughts were confused. Presently he said to himself:

“Looks to me like there is a good deal for us to learn about Dick. You don’t catch me sassin’ him again. I certainly did run an awful risk when I called him a dumb-bell. Come on, pup. He told me to lug you home and I feel darn particular about obeyin’ orders.”

GENRE
Fiction & Literature
RELEASED
2021
May 20
LANGUAGE
EN
English
LENGTH
242
Pages
PUBLISHER
Rectory Print
SELLER
Babafemi Titilayo Olowe
SIZE
16.7
MB

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