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In the Roaring Fifties   By: (1865-1931)

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THE night was bright and cool, and the old East Indiaman moved slowly on the heaving bosom of the ocean, under a strong full moon, like a wind blown ghost to whose wanderings there had been no beginning and could be no end so small, so helpless she seemed between the two infinities of sea and sky. There was no cloud to break the blue profundity of heaven, no line of horizon, no diversity in the long lazy roll of the green waters to dispel the illusion of an interminable ocean. The great crestless waves rose and fell with pulsing monotony, round, smooth and intolerably silent. It was as if the undulating sea had been stricken motionless, and the ship was damned to the Sisyphean task of surmounting one mysterious hill that eternally reappeared under her prow, and beyond which she might never pass. Suddenly the ghost faltered on the crest of a wave, fluttering her rags in the moonlight, possessed with a vague indecision. Shouting and the noise of hurrying feet broke the silence. There was a startling upheaval of men; they swarmed in the rigging, and faces were piled above the larboard bulwarks. A boat dropped from the ship's side, striking the sea with a muffled sound, and was instantly caught into the quaint lifting and falling motion of the Francis Cadman, as the oily backed waves slid under. Four men in the boat bent smartly to the oars, a fifth stood erect in the prow, peering under his hand over the waste of waters; another at the tiller encouraged the rowers with cordial and well meant abuse. A hundred people shouted futile directions from the ship. The gravity of the Indian Ocean was disturbed by the babble of dialects. One voice rose above all the rest, sonorous, masterful, cursing the ship into order with a deliberate flow of invective that had the dignity and force of a judgment.

The boat drew off rapidly. The men, squarely and firmly seated, bent their heavy shoulders with machine like movements, and when they threw back their faces the rays of the moon glittered and flashed in their dilated eyes and on their bared teeth. The sailor at the tiller swayed in unison, and grunted encouragement, breaking every now and then into bitter speech, spoken as if in reverent accord with the night and their mission, in a low, pleading tone, much as a patient mother might address a wayward child.

'Lift her, lads lift her, blast you! Oh, my blighted soul, Ellis! I'd get more square pullin' out of a starved cat with ten kittens I would, by thunder! Now, men, all together! Huh! Huh! hub!'

The boatswain strained as if tugging a stubborn oar. In the interval of silence that followed all bent attentive ears, but no call came from the sea. The sleek oars dipped into the waves without a sound, and swung noiselessly in the worn rowlocks. The man at the prow remained rigid as a statue, and Coleman resumed his whispered invocation.

'Bend to it, you devils! One! two! three! Morton, don't go to sleep, you swine! Ryan! Tadvers, you herrin' gutted, boss eyed son of a barber's ape, are you rowin' or spoonin' up hot soup? Pull, men! Huh! That's a clinker! Huh! Shift her! Huh! May the fiend singe you for a drowsy pack o' sea cows! Pull!'

The men threw every ounce of power into each stroke, the voice of the boatswain blending with their efforts like an intoned benediction, and the treacly sea foamed under the prow into drifted snow which ran merrily in their wake. For a tense moment the boat hung poised upon a high roller, as if about to be projected into the air, and the man in the prow, electrified, threw out an arm with a dramatic gesture. The instincts of the ex whaler triumphed in that moment of excitement.

'There she blows!'

Instantly Coleman fell into a condition of profound agitation; he poured out a lava flow of vituperation upon the heads of his men; he cursed them for weaklings and waster and hissed phrases shameful to them and discreditable to their parents. The crew increased their stroke... Continue reading book >>

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