THE order was instantly obeyed, and the sailors ranged themselves, facing the consul.
They were a wild company; men of many climesnot at all precise in their toilet arrangements, but picturesque in their very tatters. My friend, the Long Doctor, was there too; and with a view, perhaps, of enlisting the sympathies of the consul for a gentleman in distress, had taken more than ordinary pains with his appearance. But among the sailors, he looked like a land-crane blown off to sea, and consorting with petrels.
The forlorn Rope Yarn, however, was by far the most remarkable figure. Land-lubber that he was, his outfit of sea-clothing had long since been confiscated; and he was now fain to go about in whatever he could pick up. His upper garmentan unsailor-like article of dress which he persisted in wearing, though torn from his back twenty times in the daywas an old "claw-hammer jacket," or swallow-tail coat, formerly belonging to Captain Guy, and which had formed one of his perquisites when steward.
By the side of Wilson was the mate, bareheaded, his gray locks lying in rings upon his bronzed brow, and his keen eye scanning the crowd as if he knew their every thought. His frock hung loosely, exposing his round throat, mossy chest, and short and nervous arm embossed with pugilistic bruises, and quaint with many a device in India ink.
In the midst of a portentous silence, the consul unrolled his papers, evidently intending to produce an effect by the exceeding bigness of his looks.
"Mr. Jermin, call off their names;" and he handed him a list of the ship's company.
All answered but the deserters and the two mariners at the bottom of the sea.
It was now supposed that the Round Robin would be produced, and something said about it. But not so. Among the consul's papers that unique document was thought to be perceived; but, if there, it was too much despised to be made a subject of comment. Some present, very justly regarding it as an uncommon literary production, had been anticipating all sorts of miracles therefrom; and were, therefore, much touched at this neglect.
"Well, men," began Wilson again after a short pause, "although you all look hearty enough, I'm told there are some sick among you. Now then, Mr. Jermin, call off the names on that sick-list of yours, and let them go over to the other side of the deckI should like to see who they are."
"So, then," said he, after we had all passed over, "you are the sick fellows, are you? Very good: I shall have you seen to. You will go down into the cabin one by one, to Doctor Johnson, who will report your respective cases to me. Such as he pronounces in a dying state I shall have sent ashore; the rest will be provided with everything needful, and remain aboard."
At this announcement, we gazed strangely at each other, anxious to see who it was that looked like dying, and pretty nearly deciding to stay aboard and get well, rather than go ashore and be buried. There were some, nevertheless, who saw very plainly what Wilson was at, and they acted accordingly. For my own part, I resolved to assume as dying an expression as possible; hoping that, on the strength of it, I might be sent ashore, and so get rid of the ship without any further trouble.
With this intention, I determined to take no part in anything that might happen until my case was decided upon. As for the doctor, he had all along pretended to be more or less unwell; and by a significant look now given me, it was plain that he was becoming decidedly worse.
The invalids disposed of for the present, and one of them having gone below to be examined, the consul turned round to the rest, and addressed them as follows:
"Men, I'm going to ask you two or three questionslet one of you answer yes or no, and the rest keep silent. Now then: Have you anything to say against your mate, Mr. Jermin?" And he looked sharply among the sailors, and, at last, right into the eye of the cooper, whom everybody was eyeing.
"Well, sir," faltered Bungs, "we can't say anything against Mr. Jermin's seamanship, but"
"I want no buts," cried the consul, breaking in: "answer me yes or nohave you anything to say against Mr. Jermin?"
"I was going on to say, sir; Mr. Jermin's a very good man; but then" Here the mate looked marlinespikes at Bungs; and Bungs, after stammering out something, looked straight down to a seam in the deck, and stopped short.
A rather assuming fellow heretofore, the cooper had sported many feathers in his cap; he was now showing the white one.
"So much then for that part of the business," exclaimed Wilson, smartly; "you have nothing to say against him, I see."
Upon this, several seemed to be on the point of saying a good deal; but disconcerted by the cooper's conduct, checked themselves, and the consul proceeded.
"Have you enough to eat, aboard? answer me, you man who spoke before."
"Well, I don't know as to that," said the cooper, looking excessively uneasy, and trying to edge back, but pushed forward again. "Some of that salt horse ain't as sweet as it might be."
"That's not what I asked you," shouted the consul, growing brave quite fast; "answer my questions as I put them, or I'll find a way to make you."
This was going a little too far. The ferment, into which the cooper's poltroonery had thrown the sailors, now brooked no restraint; and one of thema young American who went by the name of Salemdashed out from among the rest, and fetching the cooper a blow that sent him humming over toward the consul, flourished a naked sheath-knife in the air, and burst forth with "I'm the little fellow that can answer your questions; just put them to me once, counsellor." But the "counsellor" had no more questions to ask just then; for at the alarming apparition of Salem's knife, and the extraordinary effect produced upon Bungs, he had popped his head down the companion-way, and was holding it there.
Upon the mate's assuring him, however, that it was all over, he looked up, quite flustered, if not frightened, but evidently determined to put as fierce a face on the matter as practicable. Speaking sharply, he warned all present to "look out"; and then repeated the question, whether there was enough to eat aboard. Everyone now turned spokesman; and he was assailed by a perfect hurricane of yells, in which the oaths fell like hailstones.
"How's this! what d'ye mean?" he cried, upon the first lull; "who told you all to speak at once? Here, you man with the knife, you'll be putting someone's eyes out yet; d'ye hear, you sir? You seem to have a good deal to say, who are you, pray; where did you ship?"
"I'm nothing more nor a bloody beach-comber," retorted Salem, stepping forward piratically and eyeing him; "and if you want to know, I shipped at the Islands about four months ago."
"Only four months ago? And here you have more to say than men who have been aboard the whole voyage;" and the consul made a dash at looking furious, but failed. "Let me hear no more from you, sir. Where's that respectable, gray-headed man, the cooper? he's the one to answer my questions."
"There's no 'spectable, gray-headed men aboard," returned Salem; "we're all a parcel of mutineers and pirates!"
All this time, the mate was holding his peace; and Wilson, now completely abashed, and at a loss what to do, took him by the arm, and walked across the deck. Returning to the cabin-scuttle, after a close conversation, he abruptly addressed the sailors, without taking any further notice of what had just happened.
"For reasons you all know, men, this ship has been placed in my hands. As Captain Guy will remain ashore for the present, your mate, Mr. Jermin, will command until his recovery. According to my judgment, there is no reason why the voyage should not be at once resumed; especially, as I shall see that you have two more harpooners, and enough good men to man three boats. As for the sick, neither you nor I have anything to do with them; they will be attended to by Doctor Johnson; but I've explained that matter before. As soon as things can be arrangedin a day or two, at farthestyou will go to sea for a three months' cruise, touching here, at the end of it, for your captain. Let me hear a good report of you, now, when you come back. At present, you will continue lying off and on the harbour. I will send you fresh provisions as soon as I can get them. There: I've nothing more to say; go forward to your stations."
And, without another word, he wheeled round to descend into the cabin. But hardly had he concluded before the incensed men were dancing about him on every side, and calling upon him to lend an ear. Each one for himself denied the legality of what he proposed to do; insisted upon the necessity for taking the ship in; and finally gave him to understand, roughly and roundly, that go to sea in her they would not.
In the midst of this mutinous uproar, the alarmed consul stood fast by the scuttle. His tactics had been decided upon beforehand; indeed, they must have been concerted ashore, between him and the captain; for all he said, as he now hurried below, was, "Go forward, men; I'm through with you: you should have mentioned these matters before: my arrangements are concluded: go forward, I say; I've nothing more to say to you." And, drawing over the slide of the scuttle, he disappeared. Upon the very point of following him down, the attention of the exasperated seamen was called off to a party who had just then taken the recreant Bungs in hand. Amid a shower of kicks and cuffs, the traitor was borne along to the forecastle, whereI forbear to relate what followed.
Omoo Chapter 21