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W. H. Macy

Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol. 60, No. 21 (Nov 22, 1879)
p. 1

Taming a Tyrant.


      I had done my best to give satisfaction to Captain Crofts, as his second officer, in the Hyacinth, but I had no reason to think I had succeeded, or ever should succeed. He was one of those old-school seamen (I am sorry to say, the new school has some apt scholars), who thought it a compromise of their dignity to make use of a kind or pleasant word in their intercourse with the subordinate officers. And as for Jack Nasty-face, in the forecastle, he was only to be persuaded to keep his own place by a constant appeal to knock-down-and-drag-out argument.

      It was because the mate and I thought we could manage men quite as well by kind treatment, that we incurred the hatred of Captain Crofts. The Hyacinth was, as may be supposed, a most uncomfortable home for all of us. For, as nothing but abuse was to be looked for under any circumstances, there was no inducement to exert one's self to do well. As a consequence, neither Mr. Hyde nor myself it must be confessed, were as efficient officers as we might have been under other circumstances. Despair of being able to satisfy the captain begat indifference, and the duties were rather loosely done.

      A more jealous, self-torturing disposition than that of our commander, it would be hard to meet with. If two or three of the foremast hands were talking and laughing together at the windlass end they must be plotting revolt or mischief of some kind; if the mate came into my stateroom for a yarn with me, the captain was on thorns till he found out what we were talking about; he would make some excuse for turning out at every change of watches that he might overhear whatever we said to each other; and would go forward twenty times a day to dodge round the galley, and eavesdrop over the fore-scuttle, picking up disconnected fragments of sentences, to rankle in his mind for hours afterwards. Of course he had frequent occasion to verify the old adage, that "listeners never hear any good of themselves."

      We had worried through the outward passage without any serious outbreak, and discharged our cargo of Yankee notions at Valparaiso. The return lading of hides and copper was to be taken in at various places on the Chilian coast, and before we were ready to sail for home, many changes had taken place in our ship's company. The men were not slow to desert as opportunities offered, and the vacancies were filled, by shipping such as could be found at the moment.

      While at Coquimbo, Captain Crofts and the mate came to blows one day in the cabin. As I was busy on deck, I knew nothing about it until Mr. Hyde made his appearance, flushed and excited with come slight scratches on his face, and hailed a shore-boat that was passing, to come alongside. He beckoned me aft.

      "What's the matter?" I inquired.

      "Just this; that I am going ashore here to take my chance. I can stand it no longer."

      "Where's the old man?"

      "Where I left him, on the cabin floor. It isn't necessary to go into particulars. He began his old system of nagging -- you know as well as if you had been there -- and at last, I got exasperated beyond all endurance, and went in. I've given him what may be called a decent thrashing -- and now I'm going to leave you."

      "But consider, if yon do so without his consent, you are a deserter, and forfeit all that is due you."

      "I don't care if I do," he replied. "Let it all go. I've had satisfaction out of his hide, and that's worth something; for I've had all I could do these last three months to keep my hands off him,"

      "But I don't want to stay in the ship myself, if you leave," said I. "My situation will be worse than ever."

      "Of that you must judge for yourself," said the mate; "but I should advise you to stick to the wreck; that is, it you can get the mate's berth and pay. Look out and ship for it though, in the presence of a consul.

      "But why should you advise me to stay when you admit that yon can endure it yourself no longer."

      "Well, for the reason that it's not so hard for you as for me. You've got a better disposition and can swaller down more than I can. Besides you are young, with a reputation to make, and it may be a great advantage to you to have held a chief-mate's berth, if it were only for a homeward passage. I'm not at all uneasy about myself. I'm well known to all the shipmasters in Valparaiso, and can easily get a vessel.

      By this time, the boat was waiting for Mr. Hyde, and, calling the steward to help him, be brought his chest on deck, and passed it down the side. The captain attempted to interfere, but was cowed by the resolute bearing of the mate, and, fearful of further punishment, decided to let him go and be rid of him. He did not show himself on deck; but as soon as he heard the boat push off, he sent the boy to say that he desired to see me in the cabin.

      As I went down, in answer to the summons, the crew, assembled on the bow, were giving three hearty cheers in honor of the late first officer. The sound was ominous enough to Captain Crofts, who turned his battered face, from which he had made an attempt to wash away the discoloring stains, towards me inquiringly. I made no remark about it, but took a seat in front of him.

      "What's all that row about?" he demanded.

      "I suppose, sir, the men are cheering a farewell to Mr. Hyde."

      "You suppose?" Don't you know?"

      "Yes sir, I think I may say I know, though I haven't asked."

      "Nor don't intend to, I suppose?"

      "I don't sir, unless I have orders to that effect."

      So Mr. Hyde has gone ashore, has he?"

      "Yes, sir."

      "Good riddance to him!" he growled. "He's no officer, and never was."

      "I can't agree with you,sir."

      "H'm!" said he, in a kind of a contemptuous ground, as if it were not worth while to argue the point with me. "I suppose you expect to take his place?"

      "Just as you say," I answered indifferently. "You know best whether you want me to. I think I would quite as soon take an honorable discharge."

      "But I won't give you a discharge!" he snapped out.

      "Very well, I shall not desert from the ship, for I can't well afford to do so. I am ready to do my duty, as I have always been, either as mate or second mate. I'm afraid, however, that I shall be 'no officer' according to your estimate of one."

      He made no reply, and I went on deck and left him. I resolved, rather than to lose any wages, to stay by the Hyacinth; as the end of the voyage was not more than three months off, or four, at the most. The captain soon after ordered the boat manned, and went ashore. He came off again at sundown, pulling one of the oars himself; as two of his three oarsmen had deserted.

      He said nothing to me that night, but the next morning took me ashore to the consul's office, and shipped me as mate of the ship; promoting Wells, one of the seamen, into my station. The two deserters had been taken, having trusted for concealment to the promise of an old Cholo, who had sold them, and they were brought down, to be taken on board in the boat with us.

      The captain could not restrain the impulse to say something exasperating, now that he had them in his power again.

      "Well, Lucas, how'd y'e like it, as far as you got? Ah! I'll work up your old iron for you, when I get you in blue water!"

      "You will, eh? you old wretch! You look out you aren't thrown overboard before we double Cape Horn. We've got a navigator, I reckon, that can take the ship home.

      The captain turned pale as a ghost at this reply. He did not speak to any one after he got on board, but went below and sat brooding all the afternoon, muttering in soliloquy, and lashing himself into a fury, as was his wont, when that cowardly jealousy of his was aroused. Not a word at supper, to me or to the second officer, who had brought his effects aft and taken to his quarters.

      "Pleasant companionship," I thought; "but there's nothing like being used to it, and knowing what to expect."

      I was walking the deck after dark, when I noticed some lively sallies thrown out by the men, and the general air of exhilaration in their voices and movements, which satisfied me that some liquid stronger than water had been circulating among them. However, there was no harm done, as yet; it might be a single bottle had been smuggled on board, and if so, it could have no great effect, when divided among so many.

      Soon I saw one of the men coming aft directly to me. He was a Spaniard, who came from home with us, one of the best men in the ship, and one who had never caused any trouble to any officer. But he was just intoxicated enough to be silly. He asked me if I would not let him have a boat to go an shore.

      "Of course not," said I. "You ought to know better, Raymundo, than to ask such a question after hours. Go forward at once."

      "Ay, ay, sir! All right!" said he, with n maudlin sort of giggle, and was turning away when, without a word to announce his presence, Captain Crofts brushed by me and struck the poor fellow full in the face with a clear swing of the arm. While he stood tottering, bewildered as much by surprise as pain, the blow was repeated. Raymundo lost his unsteady balance and measured his length on deck. The captain strode away aft, again, muttering:

      "I've got no officers to help me! They're all in league with the crew!"

      The Spaniard was assisted forward by his shipmates, completely sobered, it seemed. It occurred to me, from my knowledge of the man, that he was not likely to forget this incident. I walked aft to where the captain stood by the taffrail.

      "What do you mean sir." I asked, "by saying you have no officer to help you?"

      "You let a man come aft and ride you right down on your own quarter-deck, do you? he sneered.

      "I've seen no attempt to do anything of the kind," said I. "When I do, I rather think I shall find you behind me in meeting it. There's been no riding down, unless it be the cruel and cowardly blows which you gave to one of our best men, who had taken a harmless glass or two of dent."

      "Ay, just as I supposed! you are in league with the men against me -- you and Mr. Wells both! What did the fellow mean by threatening to throw me overboard, and telling me that they had a navigator to take the ship home? "What did he mean by that, eh?"

      "I don't know, sir, that he meant anything by it but an idle threat."

      "Is there anybody in the forecastle that knows navigation?"

      "Not that I know of; though I couldn't say positively."

      "What do you say, Mr. Wells? You have lived among 'em."

      "I don' know, sir," answered the young man, impatiently; "and what's more I don't care."

      "Of course they meant one of you two, when they talked of a navigator."

      "And is that what you have been roosting upon, ever since you heard Lucas say it?" said Wells. "And working yourself up until you're luney?".

      "Luney! roared the captain, in a fury, "Do you mean to insult me? A boy like you? I'll put you through, in short order,"

      "Avast, there, Captain Crofts!" said the new officer, coolly. "You've offered me this berth, and I've accepted it, and mean to do my duty and do right. But don't you go to making an enemy of me now, for you can't afford to do it. You've got enemies enough in the ship now, and I shouldn't be surprised if you did find your self overboard some dark night when neither of us is by to help you. Now take that to heart, and sit down and chew upon it another four-hour-watch, as that's your way of doing."

      The audacity of that speech had its effect; and the captain saw that it was useless to play the bully with either of us, or to expect us to back him up in his brutal treatment of the crew. We were both satisfied that he was an arrant coward at bottom; and without having exchanged any conversation directly upon this subject, a covenant was formed between the second mate and myself. We would obey his orders, and protect him, if necessary, from the crew, but would submit to no abuse from him.

      All became quiet after a short time, and the liquor was evidently ail disposed of. The fire had all died out for want of fuel. I set the anchor-watch for the night, and turned in, leaving the captain in one of his raging soliloquies, sitting on his sea-chest. My room door was left a few inches open into its slide, and, lying awake, I could see out into the main cabin, and observe, without moving, the entrance of any intruder, it he came down the companion stairs, I saw the captain go on deck, saw him came down again after a few minutes' absence, still with the same expression on his face, as if he wanted to bite a copper spike in two, but was afraid to risk his teeth. He went into his own room and closed the door.

      I still lay awake thinking about him, wondering how any rational being could be so constituted as to keep himself, and everybody about him, constantly in hot water. A shadow intercepted the light from the little lamp on the cabin table; a stealthy foot-step broke the silence; without moving, my gaze rested upon Raymundo the Spaniard, with it long knife clutched in his hand. His eyes were fastened upon the door of the captain's room, towards which he was striding. Seizing a pistol, which I kept ready on a shelf at my head, I shouted "Mr. Wells!" as my feet struck the floor. With a second leap, I was between the captain's door and the would-be assassin, confronting him with the pistol levelled at his bead.

      "Raymundo!" said. I. "What do you want?"

      Struck with astonishment as his eyes met mine, he dropped the knife to the deck. At the same instant the second mate seized him from behind, and in a moment he was thrown down and secured.

      Captain Crofts pushed his head out at the door.

      "What's the matter here? What's going on?"

      I explained briefly what had happened. The captain was terribly alarmed; but, as soon as he saw that Raymundo was bound and powerless, his bullying propensity returned.

      "I'll cut his Spanish heart out of him!" be said, administering a kick to the prostrate man. "Take him on deck and make a spread eagle of him at the mizzen-rigging!"

      "I shall do nothing of the kind," I replied. "And I don't think Mr. Wells cares to do it, either."

      "Not I," said the second mate; "I'll stand between you and harm, Captain Crofts, but I'll not help you to brutalize the man, as I think you have done already. I don't blame the man much, anyhow," I added, speaking too low for the Spaniard himself to hear.

      "The captain became convinced that if he wanted a "spread-eagle" in this case, he would be obliged to make it himself, unaided. His fears induced him to discharge Raymundo, who was only too glad to end his connection with the Hyacinth.

      He nursed his wrath until our cargo was completed and we were once more at sea; when he resumed his old system of trying to ascertain how much ill-treatment each man would bear without turning upon his tormentor. A system which kept the mates in a very unpleasant position; as we were necessarily obliged, to some extent, to sustain his authority.

      We had not more than three or four of the original crew remaining, and the newly-shipped ones were not so easily cowed as those who had deserted in the Chilian ports. Mr. Wells and I found it the most troublesome part of our duty to pour oil upon the troubled waters, and were often compelled to resort to severity, though in conflict with our wishes and better judgment.

      Off Cape Horn it became necessary, one night in the middle watch, to close-reef the topsails, and, as is customary in merchant vessels lightly manned, all hands were mustered. The captain came up and went forward among the men, to haze them, though nothing was ever gained by it in the manner he practised it.

      I soon heard his voice with that of Lucas, the man who had threatened him at Coquimbo, in angry altercation. I could not see them in the darkness, and did not mean to be mired up in the difficulty, unless called upon, as I often was in such cases. The second mate was already aloft to assist the men on the yard. Soon the matter seemed to be blown over, for I heard Lucas half-way up the fore-rigging. I supposed Captain Crofts might have got the worst of it, and gone into the cabin to soliloquize. I was not sorry for it, as he would be out, of the way for the remnant of the watch, at least.

      But when all was made snug, and half the men sent below, he was nowhere to be seen. He had turned in, then of course. No one wanted to disturb him, if he had. Glad to be rid of his presence, we went on with our respective duties, and thought no more of Captain Crofts until the steward, after calling him several times to breakfast, opened the door and discovered that the he was not in his room.

      His absence was immediately reported to me, and a court of inquiry instituted to throw light, if possible, upon his mysterious disappearance. No one could tell anything about him since he had been near the foot of the foremast at midnight, while the foretopsail was being reefed. Lucas admitted what I already knew, "that the old man had abused him roundly, and that he had given some cheek back again." But to get clear of the row, he had hurried away aloft, and had seen no more of him. And I overheard him add, in an undertone to his comrades, that he never wanted to again.

      Search was made everywhere above deck, in the cabin, and even in the men's quarters, though the very thought of his going there was absurd. He had never been known to do so, and had more than once been given to understand that if he ventured into the forecastle, he would stand little chance of getting out alive. There was but one conclusion to be drawn: that he had somehow fallen overboard in the darkness, and perished unseen.

      I thus found myself unexpectedly left in command of the ship, and the change of administration, I thought, seemed an agreeable one to all hands. I had no fear of any difficulty with the men, though I could not repress a lurking suspicion that the captain's fall overboard had not been entirely accidental. But I had no shadow of proof, and, having made choice of the best man I could find for second officer, the duties of the ship went on smoothly, and the mystery was, for a time, left unsolved.

      Some three weeks afterwards, when we were in the southeast trades, I sat in the cabin writing in my Journal. A footstep came shuffling down the stairs; I raised my eyes, and confronted Captain Crofts!

      I never was a believer of ghosts, and though his appearance was considerably changed from long confinement, I never doubted that it was himself, in the flesh. He said nothing; but dropped into a seat upon the transom; while I felt, I suppose, as the usurper of an estate does, when the real heir, long supposed dead, comes back to claim his own. Such an incident being a kind of stock article with old novel writers, any description of my state of mind would be but stale repetition.

      And he continued to sit and stare at me in an imbecile way, I opened the conversation by asking him, at last, where he came from.

      "The fore-peak," said he, in a humble whisper, as if he was fearful of being overheard.

      "How came you there?"

      "Put there by Lucas and two or three more, that night, off Cape Horn."

      I could scarcely believe the change in the man; though as I have since had occasion to note, it was a natural one, from a bully to a coward. He went on to tell me that he had been thrown down and gagged, so suddenly that he had no time to call upon me for help; that they had dragged him down below, and left him tied hand and foot, while they returned to their duty to disarm suspicion. He had been kept ever since, under hatches, gagged all the time, except when his rations of food were given him. At such times, his life was threatened so that he dared not attempt to raise an alarm. Now that the ship was drawing into tropical latitudes, they had released him, fearing, no doubt, that longer imprisonment, in the heated atmosphere below, might, indeed, be fatal to him. But he must have been well instructed in his lesson, when he was liberated, for he seemed to tell me all this under protest, and as though he did so only because he felt it necessary to explain the mystery.

      In my first feeling of indignation at such an unheard-of outrage, I was ready to back him up in any measures of retaliation. I asked at once who was the ringleader? He didn't think there was any particular one; it was a sort of round-robin affair, where all were concerned alike, and we had better do nothing about it. In vain I urged that the most guilty ones should be punished, They were all concerned, he said, and had all been sworn to secrecy.

      From this time to the end of the voyage, Captain Crofts never interfered with the duty, either of officers or men. I obeyed his orders, of course, when he gave me any, which was not often. He was so effectually tamed that he would take no steps to punish any of the crew when we arrived home, fearing they might take vengeance upon him. He even went so far as to get surreptitious possession of the log-book and destroy it, that there might be no official record of his death and resurrection. As the reader may suppose, we subordinates were only too glad to turn our backs upon him and his affairs, when the voyage was up, and thus it was that the secret was so well preserved.


Author: Macy, William Hussey
Title: Taming a Tyrant.
Publication: Inquirer and Mirror (Nantucket)
Vol/No/Date: Vol. 60, No. 21 (Nov 22, 1879)
Pages: 1