"The well-sworn Lie, franked to the world with all
The circumstance of proof,
Cringes abashed, and sneaks along the wall
At the first sight of Truth."
The Gibrontus of the Hot Cross Bun Line was at one time the best ship of that justly celebrated fleet. All steamships have, of course, their turn at the head of the fleet until a better boat is built, but the Gibrontus is even now a reasonably fast and popular boat. An accident happened on board the Gibrontus some years ago which was of small importance to the general public, but of some moment to Richard Keeling--for it killed him. The poor man got only a line or two in the papers when the steamer arrived at New York, and then they spelled his name wrong. It had happened something like this: Keeling was wandering around very late at night, when he should have been in his bunk, and he stepped on a dark place that he thought was solid. As it happened, there was nothing between him and the bottom of the hold but space. They buried Keeling at sea, and the officers knew absolutely nothing about the matter when inquisitive passengers, hearing rumours, questioned them. This state of things very often exists both on sea and land, as far as officials are concerned. Mrs. Keeling, who had been left in England while her husband went to America to make his fortune, and tumbled down a hole instead, felt aggrieved at the company. The company said that Keeling had no business to be nosing around dark places on the deck at that time of night, and doubtless their contention was just. Mrs. Keeling, on the other hand, held that a steamer had no right to have such mantraps open at any time, night or day, without having them properly guarded, and in that she was also probably correct. The company was very sorry, of course, that the thing had occurred; but they refused to pay for Keeling unless compelled to do so by the law of the land, and there matters stood. No one can tell what the law of the land will do when it is put in motion, although many people thought that if Mrs. Keeling had brought a suit against the Hot Cross Bun Company she would have won it. But Mrs. Keeling was a poor woman, and you have to put a penny in the slot when you want the figures of justice to work, so the unfortunate creature signed something which the lawyer of the company had written out, and accepted the few pounds which Keeling had paid for Room 18 on the Gibrontus. It would seem that this ought to have settled the matter, for the lawyer told Mrs. Keeling he thought the company acted very generously in refunding the passage money; but it didn't settle the matter. Within a year from that time, the company voluntarily paid Mrs. Keeling L2100 for her husband. Now that the occurrence is called to your mind, you will perhaps remember the editorial one of the leading London dailies had on the extraordinary circumstance, in which it was very ably shown that the old saying about corporations having no souls to be condemned or bodies to be kicked did not apply in these days of commercial honour and integrity. It was a very touching editorial, and it caused tears to be shed on the Stock Exchange, the members having had no idea, before reading it, that they were so noble and generous.
How, then, was it that the Hot Cross Bun Company did this commendable act when their lawyer took such pains to clear them of all legal liability? The purser of the Gibrontus, who is now old and superannuated, could probably tell you if he liked.
When the negotiations with Mrs. Keeling had been brought to a satisfactory conclusion by the lawyer of the company, and when that gentleman was rubbing his hands over his easy victory, the good ship Gibrontus was steaming out of the Mersey on her way to New York. The stewards in the grand saloon were busy getting things in order for dinner, when a wan and gaunt passenger spoke to one of them.
"Where have you placed me at table?" he asked.
"What name, sir?" asked the steward.
The steward looked along the main tables, up one side and down the other, reading the cards, but nowhere did he find the name he was in search of. Then he looked at the small tables, but also without success.
"How do you spell it, sir?" he asked the patient passenger.
"Thank you, sir."
Then he looked up and down the four rows of names on the passenger list he held in his hand, but finally shook his head.
"I can't find your name on the passenger list," he said. "I'll speak to the purser, sir."
"I wish you would," replied the passenger in a listless way, as if he had not much interest in the matter. The passenger, whose name was not on the list, waited until the steward returned. "Would you mind stepping into the purser's room for a moment, sir? I'll show you the way, sir."
When the passenger was shown into the purser's room that official said to him, in the urbane manner of pursers--
"Might I look at your ticket, sir?"
The passenger pulled a long pocket-book from the inside of his coat, opened it, and handed the purser the document it contained. The purser scrutinized it sharply, and then referred to a list he had on the desk before him.
"This is very strange," he said at last. "I never knew such a thing to occur before, although, of course, it is always possible. The people on shore have in some unaccountable manner left your name out of my list. I am sorry you have been put to any inconvenience, sir."
"There has been no inconvenience so far," said the passenger, "and I trust there will be none. You find the ticket regular, I presume?"
"Quite so--quite so," replied the purser. Then, to the waiting steward, "Give Mr. Keeling any place he prefers at the table which is not already taken. You have Room 18."
"That was what I bought at Liverpool."
"Well, I see you have the room to yourself, and I hope you will find it comfortable. Have you ever crossed with us before, sir? I seem to recollect your face."
"I have never been in America."
"Ah! I see so many faces, of course, that I sometimes fancy I know a man when I don't. Well, I hope you will have a pleasant voyage, sir."
No. 18 was not a popular passenger. People seemed instinctively to shrink from him, although it must be admitted that he made no advances. All went well until the Gibrontus was about half-way over. One forenoon the chief officer entered the captain's room with a pale face, and, shutting the door after him, said--
"I am very sorry to have to report, sir, that one of the passengers has fallen into the hold."
"Good heavens!" cried the captain. "Is he hurt?"
"He is killed, sir."
The captain stared aghast at his subordinate.
"How did it happen? I gave the strictest orders those places were on no account to be left unguarded."
Although the company had held to Mrs. Keeling that the captain was not to blame, their talk with that gentleman was of an entirely different tone.
"That is the strange part of it, sir. The hatch has not been opened this voyage, sir, and was securely bolted down."
"Nonsense! Nobody will believe such a story! Some one has been careless! Ask the purser to come here, please."
When the purser saw the body, he recollected, and came as near fainting as a purser can.
They dropped Keeling overboard in the night, and the whole affair was managed so quietly that nobody suspected anything, and, what is the most incredible thing in this story, the New York papers did not have a word about it. What the Liverpool office said about the matter nobody knows, but it must have stirred up something like a breeze in that strictly business locality. It is likely they pooh-poohed the whole affair, for, strange to say, when the purser tried to corroborate the story with the dead man's ticket the document was nowhere to be found.
The Gibrontus started out on her next voyage from Liverpool with all her colours flying, but some of her officers had a vague feeling of unrest within them which reminded them of the time they first sailed on the heaving seas. The purser was seated in his room, busy, as pursers always are at the beginning of a voyage, when there was a rap at the door.
"Come in!" shouted the important official, and there entered unto him a stranger, who said--"Are you the purser?"
"Yes, sir. What can I do for you?"
"I have room No. 18."
"What!" cried the purser, with a gasp, almost jumping from his chair. Then he looked at the robust man before him, and sank back with a sigh of relief. It was not Keeling.
"I have room No. 18," continued the passenger, "and the arrangement I made with your people in Liverpool was that I was to have the room to myself. I do a great deal of shipping over your--"
"Yes, my dear sir," said the purser, after having looked rapidly over his list, "you have No. 18 to yourself."
"So I told the man who is unpacking his luggage there; but he showed me his ticket, and it was issued before mine. I can't quite understand why your people should--"
"What kind of a looking man is he?"
"A thin, unhealthy, cadaverous man, who doesn't look as if he would last till the voyage ends. I don't want him for a room mate, if I have to have one. I think you ought--"
"I will, sir. I will make it all right. I suppose, if it should happen that a mistake has been made, and he has the prior claim to the room, you would not mind taking No. 24--it is a larger and better room."
"That will suit me exactly."
So the purser locked his door and went down to No. 18.
"Well?" he said to its occupant.
"Well," answered Mr. Keeling, looking up at him with his cold and fishy eyes.
"You're here again, are you?"
"I'm here again, and I will be here again. And again and again, and again and again."
"Now, what the----" Then the purser hesitated a moment, and thought perhaps he had better not swear, with that icy, clammy gaze fixed upon him. "What object have you in all this?"
"Object? The very simple one of making your company live up to its contract. From Liverpool to New York, my ticket reads. I paid for being landed in the United States, not for being dumped overboard in mid-ocean. Do you think you can take me over? You have had two tries at it and have not succeeded. Yours is a big and powerful company too."
"If you know we can't do it, then why do you----?" The purser hesitated.
"Pester you with my presence?" suggested Mr. Keeling. "Because I want you to do justice. Two thousand pounds is the price, and I will raise it one hundred pounds every trip." This time the New York papers got hold of the incident, but not of its peculiar features. They spoke of the extraordinary carelessness of the officers in allowing practically the same accident to occur twice on the same boat. When the Gibrontus reached Liverpool all the officers, from the captain down, sent in their resignations. Most of the sailors did not take the trouble to resign, but cut for it. The managing director was annoyed at the newspaper comments, but laughed at the rest of the story. He was invited to come over and interview Keeling for his own satisfaction, most of the officers promising to remain on the ship if he did so. He took Room 18 himself. What happened I do not know, for the purser refused to sail again on the Gibrontus, and was given another ship.
But this much is certain. When the managing director got back, the company generously paid Mrs. Keeling L2100.
Return to the Robert Barr library , or . . . Read the next short story; The Purser's Story