Chapter 26 | Man Overboard | Blue Jackets

Chapter Twenty Six.

It was a great relief to us all to find that our visit to the Chinese prison had not been noticed. We of course kept silence about it, not even telling Mr Brooke, who was the most friendly of our officers, and we had the satisfaction of finding that Ching obeyed our orders, and kept his peace.

I used to be rather sorry for him, his position being so solitary on board. For he could not make himself at home with the sailors in the forecastle, and though as frank, good-hearted fellows as ever lived, they seemed to look upon him only in one way, that of being a butt for their sharp witticisms, an object upon whom they were to play practical jokes.

Consequently I used often, when I found him standing alone by the bulwarks watching the shore, to edge up to him, and stop to talk; our conversation being directed by me toward some little unpleasantry in the forecastle, which if he had complained about to the first lieutenant, there would have been a severe reprimand.

I remember one of these occasions, when Ching came flying up out of the hatch, followed by a roar of laughter, and as he reached the deck, clang-clang went something against the sides of the hatch; but Ching paid no heed, running forward till he was right up by the side of the bowsprit.

I followed quickly, feeling angry on the man’s behalf.

“What’s the matter?” I cried. “What have they been doing?”

“No know,” he said rather pitifully, as he stood there trembling. “Done something. Thlow tin-kettle after.”

“But what for? What were you doing?”

“Doing? fass ’sleep, dleam ’bout big fly come and bite leg. Jump up and lun. Then thlow kettle after.”

“Here, let’s look,” I said; for as he shook his head there was the same hollow sound again, just like that made by a tin sheep-bell.

“Why, they’ve tied it to you,” I said sharply.

“Tie to Ching flock? Don’t matter. Not bess blue silkee.”

“Here, let me see,” I cried. “Turn round.”

He turned sharply, and something banged against the bulwark.

“What a shame!” I cried. “They’ve tied the old canister to your tail.”

“Tie canny all along Ching tow-chang?” he cried.

“Yes, and it’s a rascally shame.”

“Yes, allee lascally shame,” he said, nodding his head. “Not hurt velly. Only flighten velly much, makee lun fass.”

“Stand still, and I’ll soon have it off,” I cried, whipping out my knife.

“No, no,” he cried, dragging the long plait from my hand; “mightee cut tow-chang, and that velly dleadful. Take long time glow.”

“Very well, then. I’ll unfasten it, and show it to Mr Reardon.”

“What for? make Mis’ Leardon velly angly, scold jolly sailor boy. Then they not like Ching ’tall.”

“But it’s too bad; treating you just as if you were a dog.”

“Jolly sailor boy tie tin-pot dog tow-chang? No. Mr Hellick make laugh. Dog not got tow-chang.”

“No,” I said, trying very hard to get the pot off, “but dogs have got tails.”

“Yes, got tails. Don’t tellee, make no good. Didn’t hurt Ching.”

“But it’s an insult to you,” I said. “Any one would think they were a pack of boys.”

“Yes, jolly sailor boy. You no makee come off?”

“No,” I said. “They’ve made a big hole through the bottom of the canister, pushed the end of the tail—”


“Well, tow-chang, if you like to call it so—through into the inside, and then hammered the tin back round it and made it as fast as fast. Here, I shall have to cut it, Ching.”

“No, no,” he cried, seizing the canister. “No cuttee piece of tow-chang.”

“Then how are we to get it off?”

“Don’t know, Mr Hellick; look velly bad?”

“Horrible—absurd; every one will laugh at you.”

“Yes, velly bad. Ching put it in pocket.”

“Oh, you’re there, are you?” I cried, as Tom Jecks came cautiously on deck. “I should have thought that a man of your years would have known better than to help torment this poor Chinaman.”

“Not velly poor,” he whispered. “Ching got fancee shop. Plenty plize-money now.”

“Didn’t have nought to do with it,” growled Tom Jecks.

“Then who did, sir?”

“Dunno, sir; some o’ the boys. I was caulking till they wakened me wi’ laughing.”

“But you saw it done?”

“No, sir; it was all done aforehand. They’d turned his tail into a bull-roarer, and if you was to swing it round now like a windmill, it would make no end of a row.”

“Silence, sir,” I cried. “It’s disgraceful.”

“Lor’, sir, they on’y meant it for a bit of a lark.”

“Then they should lark among themselves, and not take advantage of a poor foreigner whom they ought to protect.”

“Yes, sir, that’s right enough. But he were asleep, and it didn’t hurt him till one on ’em stuck a pin in his leg to waken him up.”

“Ah!” I cried. “Who did?”

“Well, sir,” said Tom Jecks. “Now you do puzzle me above a bit. It was one o’ the lads, because the pin must have gone into his leg, for he squeaked out and then run up the ladder with the tin-pot banging about right and left, but who it was stuck that pin in, it were so dark that I couldn’t say.”

“You mean that you won’t say, Tom?”

“Well, sir, you’re orficer, and I’m on’y AB, and I shan’t contradict you; have it that way if you like.”

“I shall say no more, but we’ll see what Mr Reardon says when he hears about it.”

“Why, Mr Herrick, sir, yo’ wouldn’t go and tell upon the poor lads, would you? It were on’y a bit of a game, were it, Mr Ching?”

“No, only bit game,” said the Chinaman.

“There, you hear, sir. There wasn’t no bones broke.”

“Hold your tongue, sir.”

“Cert’n’y, sir.”

“And come here.”

Tom Jecks stepped forward obsequiously.

“Look, the tin sticks all round fast into the tail as if it were a rabbit trap.”

“Ay, sir, it do; and if I might say so, they managed it very cleverly.”


“Yes, sir. If I’d been doing it, I should on’y have thought of tying it on with a bit o’ spun-yarn; but this here tin holds it wonderful tight.”

“How are we to get it off?”

“Oh, I can soon get it off,” cried Tom Jecks, who seemed to be imbued with the same notion as Alexander of old, who unsheathed his sword to cut the Gordian knot. For he hauled out his knife by the lanyard, opened the blade with his teeth, and took a step forward, but Ching held the canister behind him and dodged round me.

“Steady, my lad,” growled Tom Jecks, “it arn’t a operation. Stand by.”

“No, no, no!” shrieked Ching.

“Steady, my lad, I’ll soon have it off. I won’t cut down to the bone.”

“No, no!” cried Ching, who was excited and alarmed, and who now began chattering in his own tongue, all pang ang nong wong ong, and a series of guttural sounds, while I could do nothing for laughing, but had to stand like a post for Ching to dodge behind.

“Why don’t you stand by, messmate?” growled Tom Jecks. “You can’t go through life with that there tin-kettle tied to your tail. Fust one as see yer will be calling, ‘Mad dog.’”

By this time the watch had come to see what was going on, and I now began to feel sorry for the Chinaman.

“Here, Ching,” I said. “Come down below.”

But he was too much alarmed for the moment to listen to my words, expecting every moment as he was that some one would make a snatch at his tail, to obviate which accident he was now holding the canister tightly beneath his arm, and looking wildly round for a way to escape.

“Hadn’t we better have it took off, sir?” said Tom Jecks, and there was a roar of laughter. “Let’s ketch him and take him to the doctor.”

“No, no!” cried Ching, dodging round me again, for Tom Jecks, to the delight of the others, made a snatch at him.

“You’ll be a deal more comfortable, messmate—you know you will. Here, let’s have it?”

Tom Jecks made another snatch at him, but Ching avoided it, and to save him from further annoyance I too made a snatch.

Poor fellow, interpreter though he was, he misinterpreted my intentions. He tore away from my grasp and made a rush forward, but several men were coming in that direction, and he dashed back to find himself faced by Tom Jecks again. In his desperation he charged right at the sailor, lowering his head as he did so, and striking him with so much force that Tom Jecks went down sprawling, and Ching leaped over him.

There was no way open to him for escape, as it seemed, and he made a rush for the side, leaped up, was on the bulwarks in an instant, and made a snatch at the foremast shrouds as if to climb up into the rigging, when either his foot slipped or his long loose cotton jacket caught in something, I don’t know how it was, but one moment I saw him staggering, the next there was the terrible cry of “Man overboard” raised as I rushed toward the side, heard the splash, and got upon the bulwark in time to see the agitated water.

That was all.

It was rapidly getting dark, the tide was running swiftly seaward, and even if the Chinaman could swim it seemed very doubtful whether he could maintain himself long, hampered as he was by his loose clinging clothes.

But at the raising of the cry, “Man overboard,” there is not much time lost on board a man-of-war. A crew leaped into the boat; the falls were seized; and in a minute the keel touched the water, and I found myself, as I stood on the bulwark holding on by a rope, called upon to direct those who had gone.

“Which way, sir? See him?”

I could only answer no, and then reply to Mr Reardon, who came up panting.

“Who is it?” he cried. “Mr Herrick?”

“No, sir, I’m here,” I shouted. “It’s the interpreter.”

“And what business had he up on the hammock-rail?” roared the lieutenant as he climbed up there himself. “Steady, my lads, he can’t be far.”

At that moment there was a flash, and a brilliant blue-light burst out on the surface of the black water, sending a glare all round from where it floated on the trigger life-buoy, which had been detached and glided away astern, while directly after a second blue-light blazed out from the stern of the boat, showing the men dipping their oars lightly, and two forward and two astern shading their eyes and scanning the flashing and sparkling water.

“Can’t you see him?” roared the lieutenant.

“No, sir.”

We leaped downward, hurried right aft where the captain and the other officers were now gathered, and the orders were given for a second boat to be lowered and help to save the poor fellow.

“He ought to float, sir,” said Mr Reardon in answer to some remark from the captain. “He’s fat enough.”

Then he began shouting orders to the men to row to and fro; and my heart sank as I vainly searched the lit-up water, for there was no sign of the unfortunate Chinaman.

“What a horrible ending to a practical joke!” I thought, and a bitter feeling of disappointment assailed me, as I asked myself why I had not gone in the second boat to help save the poor fellow.

Perhaps it was vanity, but in those exciting moments I felt that if I had been there I might have seen him, for it never occurred to me that I had a far better chance of seeing him from my post of vantage high up on that quarter-deck rail.

“See him yet?”

“No, sir!”—“No, sir!”

The first hail loudly from close by, the other from far away where the blue-lights shone.

“Bless my soul!” cried Mr Reardon, with an angry stamp. “I can’t understand it. He must have come up again.”

“Unless his pockets were heavily laden,” said the captain, going to where Mr Reardon stood. “These men carry a great deal about them under their long loose clothes. Some heavy copper money, perhaps. A very little would be enough to keep a struggling man down.”

“Ha!” ejaculated Mr Reardon, while I shivered at the idea of poor old Ching coming to so terrible an end.

“A glass here!” cried Mr Reardon, and one was handed up to him.

“Try the life-buoy,” cried the captain.

“Bless me, sir, I was going to,” retorted the lieutenant irritably; “but the idiot who uses this glass ought to be turned out of the service for being short-sighted. I shall never get it to the right focus.”

The captain gave a dry cough, and I turned round sharply, expecting to hear some angry exclamation.

“No,” cried Mr Reardon, “he is not clinging to the life-buoy. I wouldn’t for anything that it should have happened. Poor fellow! Poor fellow!”

“Ay, poor fellow!” muttered Captain Thwaites. “Any use to lower another boat, Reardon?”

“No, sir, no,” cried the lieutenant, “or I would have had one down. Ahoy there!” he roared. “Light another blue!”

“Ay, ay, sir!” came from far away, for the tide ran hissing by our sides in full rush for the sea, and the third blue-light which blazed out looked smaller and smaller, while those of the first boat and the life-buoy began to show faint, and then all at once that on the buoy seemed to go out.

“That blue-light ought to have burned longer on the buoy,” cried Mr Reardon.

“They’ve picked up the buoy and laid it across the bows of the boat,” said Mr Brooke, who was watching through his night-glass, and at that moment the light blazed out again like a star.

And still the halos shed by the lights grew fainter and fainter. Then one light burned out, and the lieutenant stamped with anger, but there was no cause for his irritation. Another flashed out directly.

The boats were too far away now for us to see much of what was going on, the heads of the men growing blurred, but we saw that they were zig-zagging across the tide, and we listened in vain for the hail and the cheer that should accompany the words—

“Got him, sir!”

The buzz of conversation among the men, who clustered on deck, in the shrouds and tops, grew fainter, and I was thinking whether I was very much to blame, and if I could in any way have saved the poor fellow. Then I began thinking of the men in the forecastle, and their punishment for being the cause, in their boyish way of playing tricks, of the poor Chinaman’s death.

I wouldn’t be Tom Jecks for all the world, I muttered, and then I turned cold and shuddered, as the hope, faint though it was, of Ching being picked up went out like one of the lights that now disappeared; for Captain Thwaites said sadly—

“I’m afraid we must recall the boats, Mr Reardon.”

“Yes, sir,” said the lieutenant in a husky voice. “I don’t think any one is to blame about the attempt to save the poor fellow, sir. The life-buoy was let go, and the boat lowered promptly; the dishipline of the men was good.”

“Excellent, Mr Reardon. I have nothing to say there. It would have been better perhaps to have lowered down the second boat sooner. But I think we have done our best. Can you make them hear from this distance?”

“Yes, I think so; a voice will travel far over the smooth water on a still night like this. Shall I recall them?”

Captain Thwaites was silent for a full minute, and we all stood gazing aft at the faint stars on the black water, while to right and left were those that were more dim and distant, being the paper lanterns of the house-boats moored a short distance from the bank.

Then the captain spoke again, and his words re-illumined the parting light of hope which flashed up like an expiring flame.

“Do you think he has struck out straight for the shore?”

“He may have done so, sir,” replied Mr Reardon, as we all stood in a knot together on the quarter-deck, “but he could never have reached it.”

“Not in this mill-race of a tide!” said Captain Thwaites. “Recall the boats.”

But Mr Reardon made no sign. He stood there gazing through the night-glass for some moments, and the captain spoke again.

“Recall the boats, Mr Reardon.”

“I beg your pardon, sir,” said the lieutenant, with quite a start. “Aloft there! Who’s in the foretop?”

“Ay, ay, sir; Jecks, sir.”

I shivered.

“Hail the boats to come back.”

The man did not answer for a moment, and Mr Reardon made an angry gesture, but just then Tom Jecks, with his hands to his mouth, sent forth a hoarse deep-toned roar.

Then there was a pause and a faintly-heard hail came from far away, the zig-zagging movement of the boats ceased, and we saw one of them, that is to say one of the lights, glide slowly toward the other, till one was apparently only a short distance in front, and the other following.

“Let me know when the boats come alongside, Mr Reardon,” said the captain quietly.

“Yes, sir.”

“And, by the way, I’ll trouble you for my night-glass.”

Mr Reardon gave a violent start.

“Your night-glass, sir?” he said.

“Yes, mine; you borrowed it.”

The lieutenant handed the telescope without a word, and at another time we should all have had to turn away to smother the desire to burst out laughing, as we recalled the irritable remarks about the idiot to whom the glass belonged, and the wretchedness of his eyesight, coupled with an opinion that he ought to be dismissed the service.

But it was not a time for mirth: we were all too sad, and Barkins contented himself with whispering—

“I say, I’m jolly glad it wasn’t I who said that. Don’t the skipper take it coolly now? But he’ll give old Dishy a talking-to for it when he gets him alone.”

Mr Reardon’s face was not visible to us, but we could see his movements, which were, so to speak, fidgety, for he began to walk up and down hastily, and once or twice I heard him mutter—

“How could I be such a fool?”

A dead chill had settled down upon the ship, and I felt as I stood there as if eight or nine years had suddenly dropped away from me—that I was a little child again, and that I should like to creep below somewhere out of sight, or sit down and cry and sob.

For it was such a horrible lesson to me of the nearness of death, and I felt as if it was impossible for it all to be true—that it must be some terrible dream.

And now for the first time it dawned upon me that I had a liking for the strange, simple-hearted Chinaman, who had always shown himself to be frank, honest, and brave in our service. He had been comic and peculiar, but always devoted to me as a faithful servant; and now, just too as I was joining in the mirth against him, instead of being indignant on behalf of one who had been insulted by the men’s horseplay, he was as it were snatched from life to death.

I was brought back to the present by a voice at my ear—

“Poor old Ching! I am sorry, Gnat.”

“Yes, and so am I.”

I had not seen my messmates all through the trouble, and now they appeared close to me in the darkness in a way which made me start.

I turned to them, and I don’t know how it was, but as we three stood there in the darkness, which was hardly relieved by a lantern here and there, Barkins held out his hand and shook mine, holding it tightly without letting go. Directly after, Smith took my other hand to give it a warm, strong pressure; and then we three parted without a word more, Barkins going one way, Smith another, while I went to the stern rail and leaned my arms upon it, and then rested my chin upon my arms to gaze out over the rushing water at the two blue stars.

But they were not there now. They had burned out some time before, and I could see nothing, only take it for granted that the boats were being slowly rowed back against the heavy tide, our anchor-lights acting as their guide.

“Is it possible that they have found him after all?” I thought, and for a minute I was hopeful. But once more the hope died out, for I knew well enough that if they had picked the poor fellow up they would have cheered.