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Soaked in seaweed: or upset in the ocean (1911) by Stephen Leacock


(An Old-fashioned Sea Story.)

from Nonsense novels (1911, 1921 ed.)

John Lane The Bodley Head Ltd.: London

by Stephen Leacock

It was in August in 1867 that I stepped on board the deck of the Saucy Sally, lying in dock at Gravesend, to fill the berth of second mate.

  Let me first say a word about myself.

  I was a tall, handsome young fellow, squarely and powerfully built, bronzed by the sun and the moon (and even copper-coloured in spots from the effect of the stars), and with a face in which honesty, intelligence, and exceptional brain power were combined with Christianity, simplicity, and modesty.

  As I stepped on the deck I could not help a slight feeling of triumph, as I caught sight of my sailor-like features reflected in a tar-barrel that stood beside the mast, while a little later I could scarcely repress a sense of gratification as I noticed them reflected again in a bucket of bilge water.

  "Welcome on board, Mr. Blowhard," called out Captain Bilge, stepping out of the binnacle and shaking hands across the taffrail.

  I saw before me a fine sailor-like man of from thirty to sixty, clean-shaven, except for an enormous pair of whiskers, a heavy beard, and a thick moustache, powerful in build, and carrying his beam well aft, in a pair of broad duck trousers across the back of which there would have been room to write a history of the British Navy.

  Beside him were the first and third mates, both of them being quiet men of poor stature, who looked at Captain Bilge with what seemed to me an apprehensive expression in their eyes.

  The vessel was on the eve of departure. Her deck presented that scene of bustle and alacrity dear to the sailor's heart. Men were busy nailing up the masts, hanging the bowsprit over the side, varnishing the lee-scuppers and pouring hot tar down the companionway.

  Captain Bilge, with a megaphone to his lips, kept calling out to the men in his rough sailor fashion:

  "Now, then, don't over-exert yourselves, gentlemen. Remember, please, that we have plenty of time. Keep out of the sun as much as you can. Step carefully in the rigging there, Jones; I fear it's just a little high for you Tut, tut, Williams, don't get yourself so dirty with that tar, you won't look fit to be seen."

  I stood leaning over the gaff of the mainsail and thinking--yes, thinking, dear reader, of my mother. I hope that you will think none the less of me for that. Whenever things look dark, I lean up against something and think of Mother. If they get positively black, I stand on one leg and think of Father. After that I can face anything.

  Did I think, too, of another, younger than Mother and fairer than Father? Yes, I did. "Bear up, darling," I had whispered as she nestled her head beneath my oil-skins and kicked out backwards with one heel in the agony of her girlish grief, "in five years the voyage will be over, and after three more like it, I shall come back with money enough to buy a second-hand fishing-net and settle down on shore."

  Meantime the ship's preparations were complete. The masts were all in position, the sails nailed up, and men with axes were busily chopping away the gangway.

  "All ready?" called the Captain.

  "Aye, aye, sir."

  "Then hoist the anchor in board and send a man down with the key to open the bar."

  Opening the bar! the last sad rite of departure.

  How often in my voyages have I seen it; the little group of men soon to be exiled from their home, standing about with saddened faces, waiting to see the man with the key open the bar--held there by some strange fascination.

.     .      .     .      .     .     .

  Next morning with a fair wind astern we had buzzed around the corner of England and were running down the Channel.

  I know no finer sight, for those who have never seen it, than the English Channel. It is the highway of the world. Ships of all nations are passing up and down, Dutch, Scotch, Venezuelan, and even American.

  Chinese junks rush to and fro. Warships, motor yachts, icebergs, and lumber rafts are everywhere. If I add to this fact that so thick a fog hangs over it that it is entirely hidden from sight, my readers can form some idea of the majesty of the scene.

.     .      .     .      .     .     .

  We had now been three days at sea. My first sea-sickness was wearing off, and I thought less of Father.

  On the third morning Captain Bilge descended to my cabin.

  "Mr. Blowhard," he said, "I must ask you to stand double watches."

  "What is the matter?" I inquired.

  "The two other mates have fallen overboard," he said uneasily, and avoiding my eye.

  I contented myself with saying "Very good, sir," but I could not help thinking it a trifle odd that both the mates should have fallen overboard in the same night.

  Surely there was some mystery in this.

  Two mornings later the Captain appeared at the breakfast-table with the same shifting and uneasy look in his eye.

  "Anything wrong, sir?" I asked.

  "Yes," he answered, trying to appear at ease and twisting a fried egg to and fro between his fingers with such nervous force as almost to break it in two--"I regret to say that we have lost the bosun."

  "The bosun!" I cried.

  "Yes," said Captain Bilge more quietly, "he is overboard. I blame myself for it, partly. It was early this morning. I was holding him up in my arms to look at an iceberg and, quite accidentally I assure you, I dropped him overboard."

  "Captain Bilge," I asked, "have you taken any steps to recover him?"

  "Not as yet," he replied uneasily.

  I looked at him fixedly, but said nothing.

  Ten days passed.

  The mystery thickened. On Thursday two men of the starboard watch were reported missing. On Friday the carpenter's assistant disappeared. On the night of Saturday a circumstance occurred which, slight as it was, gave me some clue as to what was happening.

  As I stood at the wheel about midnight, I saw the Captain approach in the darkness carrying the cabin-boy by the hind leg. The lad was a bright little fellow, whose merry disposition had already endeared him to me, and I watched with some interest to see what the Captain would do to him. Arrived at the stern of the vessel, Captain Bilge looked cautiously around a moment and then dropped the boy into the sea. For a brief instant the lad's head appeared in the phosphorus of the waves. The Captain threw a boot at him, sighed deeply, and went below.

  Here then was the key to the mystery! The Captain was throwing the crew overboard. Next morning we met at breakfast as usual.

  "Poor little Williams has fallen overboard," said the Captain, seizing a strip of ship's bacon and tearing at it with his teeth as if he almost meant to eat it.

  "Captain," I said, greatly excited, stabbing at a ship's loaf in my agitation with such ferocity as almost to drive my knife into it, "you threw that boy overboard!"

  "I did," said Captain Bilge, grown suddenly quiet, "I threw them all over and intend to throw the rest. Listen, Blowhard, you are young, ambitious, and trustworthy. I will confide in you."

  Perfectly calm now, he stepped to a locker, rummaged in it a moment, and drew out a faded piece of yellow parchment, which he spread on the table. It was a map or chart. In the centre of it was a circle. In the middle of the circle was a small dot and a letter T, while at one side of the map was a letter N, and against it on the other side a letter S.

  "What is this?" I asked.

  "Can you not guess?" queried Captain Bilge. "It is a desert island."

  "Ah!" I rejoined with a sudden flash of intuition, "and N is for North and S is for South."

  "Blowhard," said the Captain, striking the table with such force as to cause a loaf of ship's bread to bounce up and down three or four times, "you've struck it. That part of it had not yet occurred to me."

  "And the letter T?" I asked.

  "The treasure, the buried treasure," said the Captain, and turning the map over he read from the back of it, "The point T indicates the spot where the treasure is buried under the sand; it consists of half a million Spanish dollars, and is buried in a brown leather dress-suit case."

  "And where is the island?" I inquired, mad with excitement.

  "That I do not know," said the Captain. "I intend to sail up and down the parallels of latitude until I find it."

  "And meantime?"

  "Meantime, the first thing to do is to reduce the number of the crew so as to have fewer hands to divide among. Come, come," he added in a burst of frankness which made me love the man in spite of his shortcomings, "will you join me in this? We'll throw them all over, keeping the cook to the last, dig up the treasure, and be rich for the rest of our lives."

  Reader, do you blame me if I said yes? I was young, ardent, ambitious, full of bright hopes and boyish enthusiasm.

  "Captain Bilge," I said, putting my hand in his, "I am yours."

  "Good," he said. "Now go forward to the forecastle and get an idea what the men are thinking."

  I went forward to the men's quarters--a plain room in the front of the ship, with only a rough carpet on the floor, a few simple arm-chairs, writing-desks, spittoons of a plain pattern, and small brass beds with blue-and-green screens. It was Sunday morning, and the men were mostly sitting about in their dressing-gowns.

  They rose as I entered and curtseyed.

  "Sir," said Tompkins, the bosun's mate, "I think it my duty to tell you that there is a great deal of dissatisfaction among the men."

  Several of the men nodded.

  "They don't like the way the men keep going overboard," he continued, his voice rising to a tone of uncontrolled passion. "It is positively absurd, sir, and if you will allow me to say so, the men are far from pleased."

  "Tompkins," I said sternly, "you must understand that my position will not allow me to listen to mutinous language of this sort."

  I returned to the Captain. "I think the men mean mutiny," I said.

  "Good," said Captain Bilge, rubbing his hands, "that will get rid of a lot of them, and of course," he added musingly, looking out of the broad old-fashioned port-hole at the stern of the cabin, at the heaving waves of the South Atlantic, "I am expecting pirates at any time, and that will take out quite a few of them. However" --and here he pressed the bell for a cabin-boy--"kindly ask Mr Tompkins to step this way."

  "Tompkins," said the Captain as the bosun's mate entered, "be good enough to stand on the locker and stick your head through the stern port-hole, and tell me what you think of the weather."

  "Aye, aye, sir," replied the tar with a simplicity which caused us to exchange a quiet smile.

  Tompkins stood on the locker and put his head and shoulders out of the port.

  Taking a leg each we pushed him through. We heard him plump into the sea.

  "Tompkins was easy," said Captain Bilge. "Excuse me as I enter his death in the log."

  "Yes," he continued presently, "it will be a great help if they mutiny. I suppose they will, sooner or later. It's customary to do so. But I shall take no step to precipitate it until we have first fallen in with pirates. I am expecting them in these latitudes at any time. Meantime, Mr. Blowhard," he said, rising, "if you can continue to drop overboard one or two more each week, I shall feel extremely grateful."

  Three days later we rounded the Cape of Good Hope and entered upon the inky waters of the Indian Ocean. Our course lay now in zigzags and, the weather being favourable, we sailed up and down at a furious rate over a sea as calm as glass.

  On the fourth day a pirate ship appeared. Reader, I do not know if you have ever seen a pirate ship. The sight was one to appal the stoutest heart. The entire ship was painted black, a black flag hung at the masthead, the sails were black, and on the deck people dressed all in black walked up and down arm-in-arm. The words "Pirate Ship" were painted in white letters on the bow. At the sight of it our crew were visibly cowed. It was a spectacle that would have cowed a dog.

  The two ships were brought side by side. They were then lashed tightly together with bag string and binder twine, and a gang plank laid between them. In a moment the pirates swarmed upon our deck, rolling their eyes, gnashing their teeth and filing their nails.

  Then the fight began. It lasted two hours--with fifteen minutes off for lunch. It was awful. The men grappled with one another, kicked one another from behind, slapped one another across the face, and in many cases completely lost their temper and tried to bite one another. I noticed one gigantic fellow brandishing a knotted towel, and striking right and left among our men, until Captain Bilge rushed at him and struck him flat across the mouth with a banana skin.

  At the end of two hours, by mutual consent, the fight was declared a draw. The points standing at sixty-one and a half against sixty-two.

  The ships were unlashed, and with three cheers from each crew, were headed on their way.

  "Now, then," said the Captain to me aside, "let us see how many of the crew are sufficiently exhausted to be thrown overboard."

  He went below. In a few minutes he re-appeared, his face deadly pale. "Blowhard," he said, "the ship is sinking. One of the pirates (sheer accident, of course, I blame no one) has kicked a hole in the side. Let us sound the well."

  We put our ear to the ship's well. It sounded like water.

  The men were put to the pumps and worked with the frenzied effort which only those who have been drowned in a sinking ship can understand.

  At six p.m. the well marked one half an inch of water, at nightfall three-quarters of an inch, and at daybreak, after a night of unremitting toil, seven-eighths of an inch.

  By noon of the next day the water had risen to fifteen-sixteenths of an inch, and on the next night the sounding showed thirty-one thirty-seconds of an inch of water in the hold. The situation was desperate. At this rate of increase few, if any, could tell where it would rise to in a few days.

  That night the Captain called me to his cabin. He had a book of mathematical tables in front of him, and great sheets of vulgar fractions littered the floor on all sides.

  "The ship is bound to sink," he said, "in fact, Blowhard, she is sinking. I can prove it. It may be six months or it may take years, but if she goes on like this, sink she must. There is nothing for it but to abandon her."

  That night, in the dead of darkness, while,the crew were busy at the pumps, the Captain and I built a raft.

  Unobserved we cut down the masts, chopped them into suitable lengths, laid them crosswise in a pile and lashed them tightly together with bootlaces.

  Hastily we threw on board a couple of boxes of food and bottles of drinking fluid, a sextant, a cronometer, a gas-meter, a bicycle pump and a few other scientific instruments. Then taking advantage of a roll in the motion of the ship, we launched the raft, lowered ourselves upon a line, and under cover of the heavy dark of a tropical night, we paddled away from the doomed vessel.

  The break of day found us a tiny speck on the Indian Ocean. We looked about as big as this (.).

  In the morning, after dressing, and shaving as best we could, we opened our box of food and drink.

  Then came the awful horror of our situation.

  One by one the Captain took from the box the square blue tins of canned beef which it contained. We counted fifty-two in all. Anxiously and with drawn faces we watched until the last can was lifted from the box. A single thought was in our minds. When the end came the Captain stood up on the raft with wild eyes staring at the sky.

  "The can-opener!" he shrieked. "Just Heaven, the can-opener."He fell prostrate.

  Meantime, with trembling hands, I opened the box of bottles. It contained lager beer bottles, each with a patent tin top. One by one I took them out. There were fifty-two in all. As I withdrew the last one and saw the empty box before me, I shroke out, "The thing! the thing! oh, merciful Heaven! The thing you open them with!"

  I fell prostrate upon the Captain.

  We awoke to find ourselves still a mere speck upon the ocean. We felt even smaller than before.

  Over us was the burnished copper sky of the tropics. The heavy, leaden sea lapped the sides of the raft. All about us was a litter of corn beef cans and lager beer bottles. Our sufferings in the ensuing days were indescribable. We beat and thumped at the cans with our fists. Even at the risk of spoiling the tins for ever we hammered them fiercely against the raft. We stamped on them, bit at them and swore at them. We pulled and clawed at the bottles with our hands, and chipped and knocked them against the cans, regardless even of breaking the glass and ruining the bottles.

  It was futile.

  Then day after day we sat in moody silence, gnawed with hunger, with nothing to read, nothing to smoke, and practically nothing to talk about.

  On the tenth day the Captain broke silence.

  "Get ready the lots, Blowhard," he said. "It's got to come to that."

  "Yes," I answered drearily, "we're getting thinner every day."

  Then, with the awful prospect of cannibalism before us, we drew lots.

  I prepared the lots and held them to the Captain. He drew the longer one.

  "Which does that mean," he asked, trembling between hope and despair. "Do I win?"

  "No, Bilge," I said sadly, "you lose."

.     .      .     .      .     .     .

  But I mustn't dwell on the days that followed--the long quiet days of lazy dreaming on the raft, during which I slowly built up my strength, which had been shattered by privation. They were days, dear reader, of deep and quiet peace, and yet I cannot recall them without shedding a tear for the brave man who made them what they were.

  It was on the fifth day after that I was awakened from a sound sleep by the bumping of the raft against the shore. I had eaten perhaps overheartily, and had not observed the vicinity of land.

  Before me was an island, the circular shape of which, with its low, sandy shore, recalled at once its identity.

  "The treasure island!" I cried. "At last I am rewarded for all my heroism."

  In a fever of haste I rushed to the centre of the island. What was the sight that confronted me? A great hollow scooped in the sand, an empty dress-suit case lying beside it, and on a ship's plank driven deep into the sand, the legend, "Saucy Sally, October, 1867."So! the miscreants had made good the vessel, headed it for the island of whose existence they must have learned from the chart we so carelessly left upon the cabin table, and had plundered poor Bilge and me of our well-earned treasure!

  Sick with the sense of human ingratitude I sank upon the sand.

  The island became my home.

  There I eked out a miserable existence, feeding on sand and gravel and dressing myself in cactus plants. Years passed. Eating sand and mud slowly undermined my robust constitution. I fell ill. I died. I buried myself.

  Would that others who write sea stories would do as much.