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W. H. Macy

Ballou's Monthly Magazine
Vol. L, No. 3 (Sep 1879)
pp. 266-271.

266 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

. . . .



      I had been several weeks adrift in New York, for the ship in which I had arrived had been sold to New-Bedford parties to be transformed into a whaler, and I was thus thrown out of employment. Freights were dull, seamen a drug in the market, and I had begun to realize that the great city of Gotham was not a desirable place for a sailor to be in for any great length of time with no monthly pay running on. I was not only getting into debt to old Veazie, the landlord with whom I boarded, but was wearing my welcome out, and made to feel that my room was better than my company.

      New-comers had arrived who had money to spend, and it was "Get up, Jack, and let John set down," as old sailors cleverly describe this state of things.

      I had taken a stroll down one of the piers on the East-River side, without any particular object in view, but merely from the force of daily habit, and to kill time. It was a pleasant surprise to me to recognize the pleasant face of Mr. Murdock, the mate with whom I had sailed on the last ship, who was coming rapidly up the wharf, with a busy and cheerful air about him, as if he had really some purpose in view, though I knew that he had been like myself a victim of the blues when I last met him.

      "Hollo!" he hailed, "got a voyage yet?"

      "No," said I gloomily, "and I don't see any chance of getting one this fall. But what's in the wind with you, Mr. Murdock? You look as if you had struck oil or found a gold-mine."

      "Why, I've got employment," he answered, "and I think there's a chance for you, too, if you go for it without losing time. I've shipped mate of that ship, there, the 'Vindicator,' cotton-loaded, bound for Liverpool. We sail this afternoon. The crew are all on board. As she has got a second-mate, you can't get that berth, – I wish you could, – but she is one able-seaman short, and that's better than idleness."

      "Of course it is," said I. "I'm your man. Where's the agent?"

      "Here: come with me." He turned back, and we went down together to where the agent and the captain were talking together. Within ten minutes my name was duly entered as one of the crew of the "Vindicator," and I had my month's advance jingling in my pocket. There was enough to wipe out old Veazie's score; and after a parting glass to a prosperous voyage, I shouldered my bag which contained all my personal estate, and joining my old friend Mr. Murdock, we reported ourselves on board. Before the sun set, we had discharged our pilot, and were leaving Sandy Hook in the distance.

      That night in the middle watch, the mate had a chance, for the first time, to talk a little about the new situation. We agreed that the "Vindicator" was a good sailor, and worked remarkably well for a cotton-laden ship.

      "But I suppose," said Murdock, "that she has been loaded in a hurry, and her cargo is not screwed very tightly, and she's of that build that you can't load very deeply. Even now she is high out of water, and does not seem to have any such cargo as her manifest shows."

Manslaughter. 267

      "It appears to me," said I, "that she is not very well found in rigging and sails, though she may have more spare stores than I have any suspicion of."

      "Mean enough in that respect," returned the mate, "though this is, of course, between you and me. There's no spare cordage worth mentioning, and her running gear is all so worn, that even for this short voyage there'll be a grand chance to practice the arts of knotting and splicing before we get to Liverpool. However, Captain Burke seems a very fair sort of man, and says he shall buy all that is needed when we arrive there."

      "Well," said I, "I can only hope that we shall not have much heavy weather on the passage out; for, if we should carry away anything, we should be crippled, with little or no means to help ourselves."

      My wish was gratified, for the weather continued for the most part very moderate, and we had a good run acoss[sic] the Atlantic Ocean.

      Captain Burke was certainly not a bad man to sail with, being rather quiet and reserved, while the crew were as fair average as merchantmen's crews run, made up of various nationalities. So the voyage was a pleasant one on the whole, and unbroken for a month by any occurrence of startling interest.

      We had observed that Captain Burke frequently held long talks aside with the steward, who was an Englishman of fair intelligence, but this circumstance carried no weight in my mind until I came to look back upon it afterward. The two had sailed together before, and it is no uncommon thing for a commander to be on familiar terms with a favorite subordinate, especially with one who holds a position in his own end of the ship, and near his own person.

      When within a few days' sail of our port, Captain Burke one morning directed Mr. Murdock to overhaul the long-boat, caulk her, and put her in complete order for service. She had been housed over and used as a receptacle for odds and ends, a part of her having also been occupied as a pig-pen; but the order seemed to the mate a little unexpected, as she was not likely to be needed in Liverpool dock. However, we went to work upon her, and put her in thorough condition, to the entire satisfaction of the captain.

      As we drew in to the entrance of St. George's Channel in the night, we ran under easy working canvas, and when we went below at four o'clock in the morning, leaving the starboard watch in charge, everything looked promising for a speedy and successful termination of our outward voyage. But just as day was breaking there was a grand uproar and alarm, among which the cry of "Fire!" was to be heard, and the odor of smoke was the first that saluted our waking senses. The "Vindicator"'s forecastle was a sort of house built in above the spar-deck, an inconvenient and dangerous arrangement in heavy weather, but one which left more room for stowage of cargo underdeck.

      Thus we had only to rush out at the door, half-dressed, and we were directly in the midst of the confusion, and, half-choked, we rushed aft to get to windward of the smoke, as the wind, blowing on the ship's quarter, drove it directly forward upon us.

      There was much stir and excitement among the crew and officers, and some contradictory orders were given, for there appeared to be no organized plan to make an effort to subdue the fire. But as the mate jumped out of the cabin he appeared to take in the situation at a glance, and issued orders to man the waist-pump, and pass along water. The smoke was pouring up m thin wreaths through the joints or cracks of the main-hatches, but he ordered us not to lift them off until we. were ready with water for fighting the fire.

      "It's no use, Mr. Murdock!" sang out the captain, as he now for the first time made his appearance among us. "You can't save the ship!"

      "How do you know we can't?" demanded the younger officer sharply.

      "Because I've looked in there from aft, through the bulk-head, and I know the fire has got too good a hold. We must bring her to the wind at once. Stand by there, to brace up the yards!"

      "I don't think there's much fire, sir," answered Mr. Murdock. "I believe we can put it out if we make the trial, and if we run her on her course in shore, we can keep the fire smothered for a long time and get her in port, or very nearly so, before our lives will be in any danger."

      "Hard-a-port your helm, and brace up the yards!" thundered Captain Burke. "I tell you, Mr. Murdock, it is madness to undertake to fight the fire. The cotton is smould-

268 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

ering between decks, and as soon as you start a hatch, she will be all in flames. Lay hold of the long-boat, and slew her round here, ready to launch her out of the gangway. Lay the maintopsail right in aback. It's well we put the long boat in order, Mr. Murdock, though you didn't think, she would be needed so soon."

      "No, sir, but I suspect you did!" answered the mate, in a fierce whisper, which was overheard only by me, who happened to be standing nearest to them at the moment. "Captain Burke, I've not been in the habit of deserting my vessel at the first alarm without an effort to save her."

      The men obeying the orders had already slued the heavy boat athwart the deck under the leadership of the second mate. The captain turned away for a moment from Mr. Murdock, then turned back again, as if he had decided upon the course he was to take.

      "Look 'e here, young man!" said he, "you and I ought to be friends, and I hope we shall be. I heard your suspicious words, and now let us understand each other. If you ever repeat them or let any hint of the kind pass your lips, you shall be haunted to death, wherever you may hide yourself! And hark ye," he continued in a more peaceable tone, "I don't want to threaten, nor quarrel with you. Keep your mouth shut, and carry out my orders. And here." He put something with a chinking sound into Mr. Murdock's hand. I could see but indistinctly what was done; but having had my own suspicions, I was intensely interested in this colloquy from the moment they first addressed each other, and was now crouching where I could overhear it without being seen.

      I could have sworn to what would have been the next movement, for I knew Reuben Murdock to be the very soul of honor, and his temper to be very quick and proud. The touch of the money upon his hand was like pollution. Quick as thought, the gold pieces were hurled back into the face of Captain Burke with a force that must have cut into the flesh. He staggered back, livid with rage, and seized an iron belaying-pin from the rail. I rushed forward to prevent murder, if possible; but my shipmate, quicker than a flash, had struck out from the shoulder with his left fist, and the captain toppled headlong over the side. He was standing on the poop, which at the sides had only a low rail about the height of his knees, and the force of the blow, for which he was unprepared, had knocked him clear overboard!

      There was an expression of horror in Mr. Murdock's face, as he realized what he had done. But a moment satisfied us that there was no help for the captain: he would not rise again, until the sea should give up its dead. Stunned by the blow, he had sunk at once, and my dearest friend had the blood of a fellow-being upon his soul!

      He thought there had been no witness of the affair, for he did not know I was near him, until he found me looking over the rail at his side.

      The pall of smoke between us and the second-mate's gang hid them from view, and there was no one at the helm, the last helmsman having locked the wheel when the maintopsail was thrown aback, and left it to take care of itself.

      "I know all," I whispered, "I have seen all, but I am the only witness."

      "I'm glad you do know all," he answered huskily. "I did it in self-defence: there lies the iron bar that was to have crushed my skull, and there the accursed gold that he thought to buy me with. The pirate, for he is no better, has gone to his account. But I can save the ship yet. To your duty, now. Take the helm, and put it hard up! Belay all with that long-boat!" he roared in a voice of thunder. "Square in the maintopsail!"

      The men, with blind instinct of obedience, hurried to obey the orders which were so peremptory. But the second-mate ventured to ask, "Where's the old man?"

      "Gone overboard, I think," was the answer, which every man could hear. "Either tumbled, or, what's more likely, jumped overboard. But don't stop to ask questions. I command this ship now, and I'm going to take her into Liverpool, if you obey my orders. Steady, so!" he cried, turning to the helmsman: "rig the waist-pump, and pass along water."

      Instead of lifting the hatches, he ordered them covered with tarpaulins, and everything made as tight as possible. A tub, with hose attached, which had been used at New York when filling the fresh-water cask in the stowage, was now brought into play. It was slung up to the mainstay, so as to hang a few feet above the deck, and thus water could be thrown through a small pipe

Manslaughter. 269

with considerable force. As the volume of smoke rolled forward again now that the ship was steered off free, we were able to work without being choked by it, and Mr. Murdock, sending another man to the wheel, directed me to take charge of the hose and pipe, which had been led down through a small opening in the after-hatch.

      The job was no comfortable one for me, for it was hardly possible to stay under deck to do it.

      But, keeping a wet piece of canvas round my head so as to overhang my eyes, I fought hard, while the mate drove the men up to their duty, and kept the water supply coming down through the hose with a full head of power. After a little while I got the run of the spot which I supposed to be the nucleus of the fire, and kept the stream playing hard upon that one place. For a long time it was impossible to tell whether the fire or the water was gaining, for the whole space forward of where I stood was filled with thick smoke, which found its chief vent only at the little forescuttle under the deck-forecastle before mentioned. The whole half of the ship, from the mainmast to the bows, both above and below deck, was entirely uninhabitable. I became exhausted at last, and was glad enough to breathe the fresh air once more, as Mr. Minott, the second mate, jumped down to relieve me, the after-hatch being closed again is soon as I was up. Still we kept the hose-tab full and the pressure on, and after several hours of steady work, it began to be whispered that we were really gaining. The smoke was less dense than at first, and as no flame had been seen, we felt confident now that we could drown it out.

      All this time the ship was making swift headway toward her port, and though the weather was hazy, three or four vessels had been seen which passed us near enough to see something of our mishap.

      But no signal of distress had been hoisted by Mr. Murdock, nor the slightest deviation made from our voyage. He was bound to take her to Liverpool if it could be done; but if the worse came to worst there was the long-boat, and rescue was sure, in these waters, to be not far off.

      Meanwhile the English steward had been set to work with the rest, passing water; but he could not conceal his unwillingness to make any exertion to save the ship. The mate had his eye upon him from time to time, and understood now the real truth of the matter. When at last it was quite certain that we should be able to save the ship, a cheer went up from all hands save one. The steward was the only one who appeared to be disappointed& #8211; the wrong way.

      Suddenly he threw down his bucket with a thrilling cry, and rushed frantically up to the mate with a countenance expressing no bad counterfeit of horror and mortal fear.

      "I've just thought of it! The powder, Mr. Murdock! Captain Murdock! The powder! the powder!"

      "What powder?" demanded Mr. Murdock. "What are you talking about?"

      "Oh. the powder! ten kegs of it stowed in the lower 'old, directly under the fire! We shall all be blown up, if we don't get clear of the ship and save ourselves!"

      The mate seized the ring of the after-hatch, and jerked it off.

      "Down there, and haul the powder out, if you know where it is. Either get it out or stay there with it. By Heaven! if the ship blows up I'll make sure that you go up with her!" and, seizing the steward in his iron grasp, he kicked him down the hatchway, which was at once closed again.

      I spoke to Mr. Murdock in a low tone. "What do you think of this new danger?" I asked.

      "No danger at all," he answered confidently, "because there's no powder down there. The fellow was the only one in the captain's secret counsels, and the trouble is, he hasn't got his pay yet, which was to have been something handsome if the ship had been lost. He finds that she is to be saved; and it has just occurred to him, very suddenly, that he could crowd this lie upon me because I knew nothing about the stowage of the cargo. I don't believe there is much cargo under the lower deck, anyhow; but we'll soon find out, if we can get the fire under."

      The energy and will of one resolute man held all hands to their stations, but kept the work going on. All seemed to stand in awe of their new commander, and no reference had been made to the strange disappearance of Captain Burke since the answer to the second mate's question.

      It was not until afternoon that we ventured to open hatches and go to work between decks, smothering and squelching out what was left of the fire. There was something of a general average among the bales

270 Ballou's Monthly Magazine.

of cotton, and the deck-beams and carlines were charred, and in some places deeply burned; but, after all, a few days' work in the way of repairs would make the vessel as good as ever. We found her to be heavily ballasted in the lower hold, but, excepting what was between decks, there was really no cargo worth mentioning. What had been a vague suspicion as to the gigantic fraud intended upon her underwriters was now a clear certainty.

      In due time we took a pilot on board, and proceeded on up the Mersey to Liverpool. But the rumors of the strange doings on board had preceded us, and we found ourselves and our vessel objects of great curiosity and notoriety. The legal authorities took such a special interest in us, that we were all arrested and held to await an investigation. We learned that the "Vindicator" had been insured to the value of a full cargo of first quality cotton; and that most of the risk was in a Liverpool office, having been taken by their New-York agency. There had been several shipwrecks under suspicious circumstances within a short time, and there was no doubt that these Liverpool underwriters had now got hold of a ship which it was never intended should reach port: they had the complete evidence under their very eyes, and would sift the matter to the bottom. Then there was the mysterious disappearance of the captain to be accounted for, occurring as it did so suddenly, and at the most critical period of the story. Altogether it was a case which excited the most intense and wide-spread curiosity.

      There was some sparring upon the question of jurisdiction, for the consignees had employed counsel to defend the insurance case, and tried hard to get the whole crew sent back to America that the trial might take place there. But as it was made apparent that the "Vindicator" was really a British ship, that the insurers were English, and that the attempt to destroy the vessel was made in British waters, it was decided to go on with the investigation.

      Man after man of the crew was called to the stand, and subjected to a fire of questions and cross-questions, but all told the same story without hesitation or deviation. They had been shipped after the loading was completed, and had reason to suppose the ship had a full cargo of cotton. They could give no account of the origin of the fire; knew only that they had first seen smoke coming out at the chinks of the main hatches. The last they had seen of the captain he was on the quarter-deck, after the ship was hove to, and there seemed to be some disagreement between him and the mate, though no one thought it anything serious, so they were not uneasy about it. The second-mate testified, as to the question he had asked of Mr. Murdock, and the answer given, that the captain had either tumbled or jumped overboard.

      The suspicious conduct of the steward of course came out; and when that worthy was called to testify, he was severely cross-questioned. But he made the best story he could, admitting that the gunpowder scrape was only an invention of his own, but declaring that he gave this alarm solely from his fears for the safety of his own life and his anxiety to get clear of the wreck.

      Of course this statement was what might be called "too thin," in the face of the fact that he was careful to wait until the climax of danger was past before he gave the false alarm.

      He could tell no more than his shipmates had done of the suspicious disappearance of the captain.

      Then my name was called, and I was placed under oath to tell all that I knew in the matter. I proceeded to answer all the preliminary questions much in the same words that had been used by the others, though at that moment I knew nothing about the previous statements, as only one witness was brought into court at a time. My testimony went on swimmingly until I was brought upon my guard by the question, –

      "Did you see anything of Captain Burke, subsequent to his going aft on the quarter-deck, after having given the order to get out the long-boat?"

      I hesitated a moment, but soon decided to answer, "Yes, I did."

      "State all you know or saw of him subsequent to that."

      I hesitated longer than before, and finally decided not to answer. I took the literal ground that the answer was not revelant to the subject, but the magistrate told me that he and not I was to be the judge of that matter, and insisted upon a reply. I cared little for his threats for contempt of court, and refused to budge from my position. The case at issue, I said, was be

Manslaughter. 271

tween the insurers and the owners, or rather the charterers, of the ship "Vindicator," although I had no doubt that Captain Burke was implicated in the fraud, and knew all the facts about the cargo, or rather deficiency of cargo. But I argued, if I told all I knew of his fate, the story might seriously compromise another person, an intimate friend of mine, who was not then on trial, and against whom there was no charge pending. If I must be compelled to tell all I knew, this person should at least have a right to hear my statement, as he would do if he had been regularly arraigned as a criminal.

      Finally, the court, finding me determined even to obstinacy, and being specially anxious to get all that I knew, without further delay, consented that Mr. Murdock, who was the only witness remaining to be examined, should be brought into the courtroom, and confronted with me.

      The young mate entered the court-room with an easy, confident, I might almost say defiant, manner. Our eyes met, and I read in that one look all that I wanted. I was to tell the whole truth without reserve or precaution: he was ready to listen to it all, and to confirm it by his own testimony when called upon. To be sure, I might have known all this before, from my observations of the man's character, but it was a great comfort to me to have him present, and to meet that honest, re-assuring look.

      I told the straight-forward tale of the quarrel and the blow, omitting no circumstance which I thought would throw light upon a full understanding of the truth. I told, with a pride which I could not conceal, the story of his conduct afterward, and how the ship had been saved and brought into port by his coolness and resolution.

      But, when Reuben Murdock himself stood up and took the oath, a sensation at once ran through the assembly. As he went on with his testimony, no words can describe the impression produced by his open, fearless face, and his brief, pointed answers, every word of which bore the stamp of truth. He had no grounds of suspicion, he said, against Captain Burke up to the time of the fire, though be thought it odd that he should have been so careful to put the long-boat in sea-going order just at that time. He had since thought much about the private talks between the captain and the steward, though he attached no importance to them when they occurred. He now believed the steward to have been accessory to the plot for destroying the ship, if not indeed the actual incendiary.

      The case appeared clear enough to all who had followed the evidence, and a spontaneous cheer burst from the whole assembly as the counsel declared that he had no further questions to ask. My friend came down from the stand with the step of a conqueror rather than that of a culprit.

      As a matter of form it was neccessary to detain and try him on a complaint for manslaughter; but as all the evidence was known before, the case might be said to have been prejudged, and he was sentenced to such a trifling term of imprisonment that his punishment was more like an honorable acquittal than anything else.

      Through the influence of the underwriters, he at once obtained command of a fine ship, and I sailed as an officer with him on that and other subsequent voyages. There was always a shadow of sadness upon his face and in his manner whenever that eventful voyage of the "Vindicator" was referred to, but I think his feeling was nothing like remorse in the ordinary sense of the word. He had merely resented an insult as it seemed, and had struck the blow in self-defence. The steward, being held for further examination, became frightened, and being also disappointed of the payment he had expected for his rascality, confessed the whole truth, implicating also the other guilty, parties.

      For the confession his own escape was connived at, and he was allowed to go free, not a richer, but, it is to be hoped, a wiser, man.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Manslaughter.
Publication: Ballou's Monthly Magazine.
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 50, No. 3 (Sep 1879)
Pages: 266-271