The Wrecker

Page 75

He was come of good people Down East, and had the beginnings of a thorough education. His temper had been ungovernable from the first; and it is likely the defect was inherited, and the blame of the rupture not entirely his. He ran away at least to sea; suffered horrible maltreatment, which seemed to have rather hardened than enlightened him; ran away again to shore in a South American port; proved his capacity and made money, although still a child; fell among thieves and was robbed; worked back a passage to the States, and knocked one morning at the door of an old lady whose orchard he had often robbed. The introduction appears insufficient; but Nares knew what he was doing. The sight of her old neighbourly depredator shivering at the door in tatters, the very oddity of his appeal, touched a soft spot in the spinster's heart. "I always had a fancy for the old lady," Nares said, "even when she used to stampede me out of the orchard, and shake her thimble and her old curls at me out of the window as I was going by; I always thought she was a kind of pleasant old girl. Well, when she came to the door that morning, I told her so, and that I was stone-broke; and she took me right in, and fetched out the pie." She clothed him, taught him, and had him to sea again in better shape, welcomed him to her hearth on his return from every cruise, and when she died bequeathed him her possessions. "She was a good old girl," he would say. "I tell you, Mr. Dodd, it was a queer thing to see me and the old lady talking a pasear in the garden, and the old man scowling at us over the pickets. She lived right next door to the old man, and I guess that's just what took me there. I wanted him to know that I was badly beat, you see, and would rather go to the devil than to him. What made the dig harder, he had quarrelled with the old lady about me and the orchard: I guess that made him rage. Yes, I was a beast when I was young. But I was always pretty good to the old lady." Since then he had prospered, not uneventfully, in his profession; the old lady's money had fallen in during the voyage of the Gleaner, and he was now, as soon as the smoke of that engagement cleared away, secure of his ship. I suppose he was about thirty: a powerful, active man, with a blue eye, a thick head of hair, about the colour of oakum and growing low over the brow; clean-shaved and lean about the jaw; a good singer; a good performer on that sea-instrument, the accordion; a quick observer, a close reasoner; when he pleased, of a really elegant address; and when he chose, the greatest brute upon the seas.

His usage of the men, his hazing, his bullying, his perpetual fault-finding for no cause, his perpetual and brutal sarcasm, might have raised a mutiny in a slave galley. Suppose the steersman's eye to have wandered: "You ----, ----, little, mutton-faced Dutchman," Nares would bawl; "you want a booting to keep you on your course! I know a little city-front slush when I see one. Just you glue your eye to that compass, or I'll show you round the vessel at the butt-end of my boot." Or suppose a hand to linger aft, whither he had perhaps been summoned not a minute before. "Mr. Daniells, will you oblige me by stepping clear of that main-sheet?" the captain might begin, with truculent courtesy. "Thank you. And perhaps you'll be so kind as to tell me what the hell you're doing on my quarter-deck? I want no dirt of your sort here. Is there nothing for you to do? Where's the mate? Don't you set ME to find work for you, or I'll find you some that will keep you on your back a fortnight." Such allocutions, conceived with a perfect knowledge of his audience, so that every insult carried home, were delivered with a mien so menacing, and an eye so fiercely cruel, that his unhappy subordinates shrank and quailed. Too often violence followed; too often I have heard and seen and boiled at the cowardly aggression; and the victim, his hands bound by law, has risen again from deck and crawled forward stupefied--I know not what passion of revenge in his wronged heart.

It seems strange I should have grown to like this tyrant. It may even seem strange that I should have stood by and suffered his excesses to proceed. But I was not quite such a chicken as to interfere in public; for I would rather have a man or two mishandled than one half of us butchered in a mutiny and the rest suffer on the gallows. And in private, I was unceasing in my protests.

"Captain," I once said to him, appealing to his patriotism, which was of a hardy quality, "this is no way to treat American seamen. You don't call it American to treat men like dogs?"

Robert Louis Stevenson
Classic Literature Library

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