A Dangerous Cargo

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A Dangerous Cargo is an seafaring adventure story published in McRoberts' collection, Rounding Cape Horn and Other Sea Stories (1895).
An illustration for the story A Dangerous Cargo by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story A Dangerous Cargo by the author Walter McRoberts
An illustration for the story A Dangerous Cargo by the author Walter McRoberts

The south-east trades of the Pacific usually carry the north bound vessel well across the Line. But they had been failing gradually for some days; and now the long, low steel hull of the British ship Lochleven had almost ceased to move, although she was yet a good two degrees south of the equator. It was very provoking; the more so that she had made very fast time thus far, and Captain Stafford had entertained hopes of making an unusually quick passage. But these hopes were slowly vanishing.

The remarkable feature of a calm in the equatorial latitudes of the Pacific is the interesting appearance of the water, which literally teems with various forms p. 212of animal life. It is clear and limpid as crystal, and, viewed from the Lochleven’s deck, an endless procession of strange creatures slowly floated by with the current. Two shapeless blotches of film appeared, whose only sign of life was a great red eye at one end. They seemed to have less than the consistency of jelly, and represented one of the lowest forms of animal life. Next was a curious jointed creature of a deep orange tint, coiled up like a snake. Then a fragile nautilus was borne along, with the delicate pink shell projecting above the surface like a sail,—“Portuguese man-of-war” seamen call it,—while a bunch of long tentacles hung down beneath. Just over the stern were two active little fish the size of a brook trout, whose bodies were blue, with wide brown stripes. The pair swam side by side, occasionally darting away capriciously, only to return in a moment. How harmless and innocent they looked! And yet their presence was a certain indication that a shark lurked beneath the ship. One or two of these pilot-fish always accompany a shark to find his prey and lead him to it, for their ugly protector is lazy and nearsighted, and would fare badly without them. Close to the ship’s side a magnificent dolphin floated motionless in the translucent water; the beauty of his steel-blue and pale lemon tints being enhanced by the clear element until the splendid creature seemed too glorious to be real. So quiet was the ocean, so still the fish, that one might easily imagine it only the image of a dolphin reflected in a vast mirror.

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, A Dangerous Cargo, burning shipSeveral hundred miles to the eastward of where the Lochleven lay becalmed were the Galapagos Islands, where thousands of turtles assemble, lay their eggs in the sand, and then float away with the current; sleeping on the water most of the time. A dozen were now in view at various distances from the ship, besides a big one that had just been captured, and was crawling awkwardly about the deck. Its great discolored shell, dead-looking eyes, and beak massive enough to sever a man’s wrist, gave little indication of the rich steaks and agreeable soup into which the cook promised to convert it on the morrow.

Howard, the captain’s seven year old son, considered the turtle a new kind of steed, and bestrode its broad back in great glee. The bare-footed youngster was brown as a berry, and carried a toy sailor which had been christened Lord Nelson. p. 214The fact that his lordship was minus an arm only increased the affection with which he had been regarded for two years past, when he supplanted a golden haired doll, which Howard soon after consigned to a watery grave.

Captain Stafford had been standing by the main hatch, watching the turtle, and seeing to it that his reckless son did not get a finger bitten off, when he became sensible of a faint, almost imperceptible odor. It was so vague as to be almost intangible—probably not half a dozen on board would have noticed it even had they stood where the captain did then. At first he tried to think it might be only imagination, and this view of the matter was strengthened when he walked to another part of the deck not far off and detected no odor whatever. He returned to his former position and sniffed the air as a hound does when scenting danger. Again that slight smell of gas.

Captain Stafford knew what sort of a cargo was stowed under his feet, and from that moment he thought no more of the turtle. Walking to the carpenter-shop, he beckoned to its occupant. “Carpenter, get the main hatch off at once.”

Cardiff coal is extraordinarily liable to p. 215spontaneous combustion, and not a few of the many ships that carry it from Cardiff and Swansea all over the world catch fire. Often the danger is discovered in time to be checked, but one of the peculiarities of this cargo is, that it may burn for days and even weeks in the center of the mass without giving the least sign, only to break forth at last in uncontrollable fury. The Lochleven carried 4,000 tons of this commodity, consigned to San Francisco.

The carpenter brought out his tools and began removing the hatch-cover, while such of the crew as were aloft “tarring down” the rigging wondered what this unusual proceeding meant. The moment the aperture was laid open the nostrils of those who looked down were saluted by a smell like that of a sulphur match that has been lighted and then immediately extinguished. It was not overpowering, and the captain was the first man to descend the ladder. The carpenter followed with an iron testing-rod, and then the mate, with several of his watch. The latter were equipped with spades. Placing his hand upon the coal, the captain found it slightly warm on the surface, and the crew commenced digging according to his directions. Then the carpenter inserted the p. 216testing-rod, which was withdrawn presently, and showed that no fire existed thereabout, although the coals were badly heated.

“Now, carpenter, take off the other hatches, and use the tester in the other parts of the ship. And you, Mr. Maitland, get the rest of your watch down from aloft. Let them bring below every spade on board, and dig trenches wherever the coal is heated.”

The captain’s lungs were not strong and he was seized with a fit of coughing, brought on by inhaling gas. This compelled him to go on deck for a time, and he saw Mrs. Stafford approaching.

“What is wrong, Edward, and why are the hatches being opened? You look troubled.”

“Nothing serious, I hope. The cargo is badly heated, but we find no fire as yet.”

Mrs. Stafford glanced at her husband interrogatively, as if to divine whether he concealed anything. She was a woman of commanding presence, and though hardly thirty-five, her abundant hair was perfectly white.

“There is no smoke,” she said, looking down into the hold.

p. 217Even as she spoke the carpenter removed the third hatch, and instantly a thin, yellowish vapor ascended into the air. “That’s a bad sign,” said McKenzie, the third mate, aside to the carpenter, who was preparing to descend. But he drew back, holding his nose, and before it was possible to go down a wet sponge had to be bound over his mouth and nostrils. Those who accompanied him took the same precaution.

It was nearly noon, and time to take sights. Still no wind, and the rudder-chains creaked and rattled as though to remind everyone that a calm prevailed.

While Captain Stafford waited for the sun to reach the zenith, the carpenter approached, with a serious face.

“There looks to be a fire, sir, in hatch No. 3. The further down the men dig the hotter the coal gets, and the smoke is so much thicker we can hardly keep at work. All hands are digging trenches, but I’m afraid, sir, that opening the hatches is making it worse.”

“Begin now and pump water into the trenches. We will see what effect that has. I shall be there as soon as possible.”

He hardly dared to think what would become of the ship in case it should prove p. 218impossible to subdue the fire. She was a fine new vessel, having been built on the Clyde only two years before. Should a fair wind spring up and the fire continue to burn inwardly, there might be some hope of making Callao or Panama, and thus saving the ship; but here they were in a dead calm, at a place where a steady wind of any sort was practically out of the question.

All the afternoon water was pumped into the hold, being led over the coal by means of the trenches, and when pumping ceased early in the evening it appeared to have done much good. The coal in the main hatch was cooled off, and the smoke had disappeared from the one next to it. But the morning would prove whether the fire was to be subdued or not, and the crew were ordered to bring up their mattresses and sleep on deck. Then all the hatches were tightly battened down in order to exclude air from the hold, and supper was served two hours later than usual. But no one in the cabin except Howard was able to do justice to the turtle-steak, the others hardly knowing what was before them. Anxiety and suspense destroy appetite, and not until morning arrived would it be known whether or not the fire had p. 219the ship at its mercy. If the coal was merely heated and not actually burning, the water pumped on it would probably suffice to avert combustion. The fact of the vapor having vanished was of little importance—the exterior of a volcano may be treacherously fair and peaceful at the very moment the interior is a mass of molten fire.

Howard turned in at the usual time. He vaguely understood that something was wrong, and wondered why all were so grave. But the boy saw neither fire nor smoke, and his childish mind had not yet grasped the peril which threatened the ship. Clad in his white nightgown, he knelt at his mother’s knee; and, burying his face in her lap, said the evening prayer she had taught. He repeated the words more slowly than usual, and after reaching “Amen” continued earnestly, “God, don’t let us be burned up, and please let us catch another turtle to-morrow.” Then he ran into his little room next to that of his parents, and bounded into bed in a way that made the slats rattle.

Ten minutes later, when Mrs. Stafford stole in on tip-toe, the child was sleeping peacefully; the bed-clothes were all kicked off, and the cherished figure of Lord p. 220Nelson—without which he never went to sleep—had just fallen from one little hand. There he lay in the sweet forgetfulness of childhood, while his mother stood beside him thinking of the many nights he had slept in that little bed; in storm and calm, in heat and cold, in the Atlantic, in the Pacific, in the Indian Ocean. How many more nights would he sleep there? She softly imprinted a kiss on the tanned forehead, and left the room with moist eyes. Ascending to the quarter-deck, she lay down in a hammock underneath the awning.

Captain Stafford and William Wells, the second mate, were standing by the rail discussing the chances of saving the ship, and speaking of other vessels that had caught fire under similar conditions. One, a large British ship, called the Kenilworth, had been abandoned after being burned entirely out inside. She was afterwards picked up, towed into San Francisco, and sold at auction. An American firm was the purchaser; she was rebuilt, and is sailing the seas to-day under the stars and stripes. Another, less fortunate, was entirely consumed in the South Pacific, her officers and crew escaping to the island of Juan Fernandez.

p. 221The two men thought Mrs. Stafford was asleep, but she heard every word, and the relation of these disasters depressed her spirits exceedingly. She struggled with this feeling, for she was not a woman to despair easily, and at length succeeded in forgetting everything in a deep, dreamless sleep.

Dawn put an end to suspense. Through two of the closed hatches a thin cloud of smoke was filtering, proof conclusive that fire had been slowly consuming the cargo for days and days past. Now it was eating its way to the surface The hatches were opened, but dense clouds of hot, suffocating yellow smoke belched forth, driving all back. It was overpowering, and they were covered up again as fast as possible. It was useless to pump more water into the hold, for the removal of the hatches, by creating a draft, would simply fan the fire. Nothing but a miracle could now save the ship.

Orders were given for the crew to bring all the stores and provisions up from below,—all their bedding, sea-chests, and whatever else there was in the fore peak. The smell of gas down there was intolerable, and besides, it was necessary to keep every hatch closed in order to smother the p. 222fire as much as possible. When everything had been brought up, the cover was put on and secured, and the seams caulked with oakum.

One of the apprentices did not realize until it was too late, that the crew must live entirely on deck from that time forth; evidently supposing it would be possible to go below again after an interval. When he discovered his mistake the boy asked to be allowed to fetch his sea-chest, but the hatch was secured permanently, and his request had to be refused. He was the only son of a widowed mother, who had fitted him out finely on this, his first voyage, and tears filled his eyes when he thought of all the things she had made for him with so much care.

The calm continued—there was no sign of the longed for wind. Several men were kept aloft all day to scan the horizon for a sail, even the captain ascending the rigging; but not a solitary object was in sight.

The endless procession of yesterday floated by with horrible monotony. The red-eyed blotches of film, the jelly-fish, the orange-colored snakes, the large turtles asleep on the water or paddling slowly about,—it was precisely the same. The p. 223previous day the water and its strange inhabitants had possessed a fascinating interest to many of those on the ship; now this same scene of tranquil beauty had become an aggravation. As Mrs. Stafford’s anxious eyes fell on these curious sluggish creatures contentedly floating with the current, she wondered absently whether they derived any pleasure from such a passive and aimless existence. The two pilot-fish still swam by the counter; the invisible shark still lurked beneath the ship; the dolphin alone, was gone.

It was the Sabbath,—usually a day of perfect rest on the Lochleven, for Captain Stafford was a man of strong religious convictions. Every soul on board, from Mrs. Stafford and Howard down to the apprentices, was required to be present at the Sunday morning services. In pleasant weather these exercises were conducted on the main deck, where all hands were accustomed to assemble at six bells (11 o’clock), but to-day was an exception, for the crew was hard at work.

Every deep-water ship, before she reaches port after a long voyage, is thoroughly cleaned and painted from stern to stern. This is a job requiring at least a couple of weeks. The Lochleven had p. 224expected to reach San Francisco within a month, and ship-cleaning was nearly completed at the time the fire was discovered. The iron yards and lower masts were freshly painted, the wooden top-masts and top-gallant masts had been scraped, sand-papered and oiled, the rigging tarred down, the life-boats and deck-houses cleaned and painted, and the decks holystoned and oiled up to the top notch.

Now each man in the crew was working as only desperate men can, to heave overboard every inflammable article about the ship. Buckets of tar and paint; cans of benzine and linseed oil; spare spars and planks; empty barrels; old sails; oakum and sennit;—all covered the placid surface of the ocean.

Howard was very silent all the morning. He knew now something very serious had happened, and his surprise was great at sight of so many useful articles being made way with. More than once had he been punished for thus disposing of belaying pins, brooms, swabs and marline-spikes. He trotted around near the mate, who was an especial favorite of his, and followed the example of the others by throwing into the sea such light articles as were suited to his strength. But when p. 225six bells struck and the work still continued, he ran to find his father. Never before could he remember a Sabbath when services were not in progress at that hour.

“I thought this was Sunday, papa?”

“So it is, Howard.”

“Then why don’t we have church? Have you preached all the sermons you know?”

“It is not that, my boy.”

“And shan’t we have duff for dessert, either?”

“I suppose we shall; we usually do on Sunday and Wednesday. The reason services are not held to-day is because there is much work that cannot be delayed. The Lord helps those who help themselves, and instead of stopping to pray for deliverance we must first do everything in our power to lessen the danger.”

The boy thought a moment, and then ran off to inform his mother. “Mama won’t believe it; she’ll think I’m fooling her!” he called out to his father.

During the afternoon the boats were watered and provisioned, and made ready for launching, though Captain Stafford was determined not to abandon the ship until the last extremity. It is appalling p. 226to think of leaving a large vessel in mid-ocean for a few frail cockle-shells, and the master of the Lochleven entertained a desperate hope that some sort of a breeze might soon spring up that would at least carry the doomed ship nearer the Galapagos Islands,—the only land within a radius of a thousand miles of the spot where the vessel lay. A few white wind clouds could be seen on the south-western horizon, but they rose very slowly.

The fire was evidently gaining very rapidly, for when Mrs. Stafford went below towards evening she noticed a strong sulphurous smell pervading the cabin and sleeping rooms. The captain had not reckoned on this so soon, and took the precaution to bring his sextant, chronometers, the ship’s papers and some of the charts on deck, where all hands made arrangements to pass the night; the crew being in the extreme forward part of the long vessel, the officers amidships, and the captain’s family on the quarter-deck. This in itself was no especial hardship, for the weather was warm, though not excessively so.

Magnificent beyond all description was the sunset. The sky reflected every possible tint—indigo, light blue, pink, p. 227magenta, light and dark green, yellow, orange, gray and other hues—all blended and shaded so harmoniously that it was impossible to tell where one began and another left off. In the midst of the indigo blue hung the moon, a crescent of burnished silver.

As midnight approached, great banks of purple clouds massed themselves in the heavens, while forked and sheet lightning shot across the lurid sky. A dozen hands were aloft furling the skysails and royals.

“Only a squall, Mary,” Captain Stafford said, in answer to his wife’s question, “but there is wind behind it, though perhaps not much.”

In the early morning hours the first great drops pattered heavily on the awning, and a puff of wind was perceptible soon after. Mr. Wells had the deck, and the men joyfully sprang to the braces to trim the yards in accordance with his orders. By the time this was accomplished the tropical rain descended in perfect torrents,—blinding sheets,—and the ship was well heeled over, running before a heavy squall with nearly squared yards. The rain hissed into the foaming ocean, the lightning flashed, and for four hours the Lochleven seemed literally to fly, as if p. 228trying to escape the demon of destruction within. The awning was new and shed the torrents of water well, though the heaviness of the deluge threatened to split it.

The squall passed over slowly, having helped the ship along nearly fifty miles towards the islands. Then the rain ceased and the wind nearly so, leaving only a two-knot zephyr. Even this was better than a calm, but soon after sunrise it increased to a steady breeze which held all that day.

The captain and Mrs. Stafford undertook to go below and bring up some of their clothes and other possessions, but were rendered nearly insensible before they had crossed the cabin. Up through the floor came volumes of poisonous gas, rendering the atmosphere so stifling that both hastened back and stumbled up the companion-way to the purer air. The books, trinkets and souvenirs that Mrs. Stafford had picked up all over the world,—many of which were rendered dear by their associations, rather than by their intrinsic value,—all these things she prized so highly were utterly lost. The captain had private charts belonging to himself p. 229that could scarcely be replaced. It was impossible to get at them.

All the scuppers were plugged up and water pumped on the main deck until it fairly swam, There was nothing else to be done but to scan the horizon and hope that the crisis might not come until the wind had carried them nearer the islands, which were yet a good three hundred miles to the eastward.

Another squall from the southwest towards evening increased their speed, though everyone was in constant fear lest the wind should fail entirely when it passed over. Captain Stafford resolved to take to the boats the moment it fell calm, for it was already perilous to remain on the ship. They were literally living over a volcano, and nothing but the desire to get as near land as possible induced him to stick to the vessel so long.

Occasional heavy puffs of smoke and sparks came from two of the hatches towards morning, and all hands were on the qui vive, momentarily expecting the order to get the boats over. The wind grew lighter, and as it failed the poisonous vapors nearly choked those on board.

The man at the wheel struck eight bells—it was 4 A.M. Never again would p. 230those spokes be clasped by human hands, or that bell be heard to ring. From away forward floated the answering sound of the bell on the foremast.

Then came the order “Abandon ship!”

The ocean was calm, and three of the boats were launched without difficulty; Captain Stafford, Mr. Maitland and Mr. Wells each taking charge of one. There was no time to take a last look, no time for anything but to hurry away from the ship, before the accumulation of gas in the hold should burst the decks open or blow the hatches off.

The Lochleven’s sails were flapping softly in obedience to the gentle swell. Her four tall masts with their great spread of canvas, and imposing three hundred feet of dark hull, lent a deceptive appearance of security and majestic strength. She had not been deserted any too soon, for just as the stars were fading in the east before the swift tropical dawn, the expected rending of her decks took place. Clouds of smoke and sheets of flame leaped up, the canvas and rigging caught, and in an incredibly short space of time, the great vessel was blazing fiercely.

The blowing up of the decks released the imprisoned flames, which roared and crackled; writhing up the ropes and shrouds to the very mast heads, as though eager for more material to devour.

Those in the boats watched the awful spectacle with fascinated eyes. The heat became unbearable, burning brands fell into the ocean, and a little breeze springing up, they took advantage of it to get under way. Fanned by the rising wind, that four thousand tons of burning coal lighted up the ocean for miles and miles around, while the boats seemed to be floating on a sea of blood. To their awe-struck occupants, it seemed that the great beacon must be visible from the Galapagos Islands,—the haven which they were destined to reach three days later.

Suddenly a cry came from Howard. In the hurry and excitement of departure, Lord Nelson had been left behind! He begged his father to put back—implored his mother, with choking sobs, to let him save his cherished companion. They tried to comfort him, but in vain. In speechless grief the boy held out his arms towards the burning ship, gradually melting into the horizon line; and if Howard Stafford lives to be four score, he will never shed more bitter or scalding tears than fell from his eyes at that moment.

Rounding Cape Horn and other stories, A Dangerous Cargo, minister


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