STEPHEN CRANE’S OWN STORY
He Tells How the Commodore Was Wrecked and How He Escaped,
Young Writer Compelled to Work in Stifling Atmosphere of the Fire Room,
BRAVERY OF CAPTAIN MURPHY AND HIGGINS
Tried to Tow Their Companions Who Were on the Raft—Last Dash for the Shore Through the Surf
Copyright, 1897, by the Press Company, Limited.
JACKSONVILLE, Fla., Jan. 6.—It was the afternoon of New Year’s. The Commodore lay at her dock in Jacksonville and negro stevedores processioned steadily toward her with box after box of ammunition and bundle after bundle of rifles. Her hatch, like the mouth of a monster, engulfed them. It might have been the feeding time of some legendary creature of the sea. It was in broad daylight and the crowd of gleeful Cubans on the pier did not forbear to sing the strange patriotic ballads of their island.
Everything was perfectly open. The Commodore was cleared with a cargo of arms and munition for Cuba. There was none of that extreme modesty about the proceeding which had marked previous departures of the famous tug. She loaded up as placidly as if she were going to carry oranges to New York, instead of Remingtons to Cuba. Down the river, furthermore, the revenue cutter Boutwell, the old isosceles triangle that protects United States interests in the St. John’s, lay at anchor, with no sign of excitement aboard her.
On the decks of the Commodore there were exchanges of farewells in two languages. Many of the men who were to sail upon her had many intimates in the old Southern town, and we who had left our friends in the remote North received our first touch of melancholy on witnessing these strenuous and earnest goodbyes.
It seems, however, that there was more difficulty at the custom house. The officers of the ship and the Cuban leaders were detained there until a mournful twilight settled upon the St. John’s, and through a heavy fog the lights of Jacksonville blinked dimly. Then at last the Commodore swung clear of the dock, amid a tumult of goodbyes. As she turned her bow toward the distant sea the Cubans ashore cheered and cheered. In response the Commodore gave three long blasts of her whistle, which even to this time impressed me with their sadness. Somehow, they sounded as wails.
Then at last we began to feel like filibusters. I don’t suppose the most stolid brain could contrive to believe that there is not a mere trifle of danger to filibustering, and so as we watched the lights of Jacksonville swing past us and heard the regular thump, thump of the engines we did considerable reflecting.
But I am sure that there were no hifalutin emotions visible upon any of the faces which fronted the speeding shore. In fact from cook’s boy to captain, we were all enveloped in a gentle satisfaction and cheerfulness. But less than two miles from Jacksonville, this atrocious fog caused the pilot to ram the bow of the Commodore hard upon the mud and in this ignominious position we were compelled to stay until daybreak.
HELP FROM THE BOUTWELL.
It was to all of us more than a physical calamity. We were now no longer filibusters. We were men on a ship stuck in the mud. A certain mental somersault was made once more necessary.
But word had been sent to Jacksonville to the captain of the revenue cutter Boutwell, and Captain Kilgore turned out promptly and generously fired up his old triangle, and came at full speed to our assistance. She dragged us out of the mud, and again we headed for the mouth of the river. The revenue cutter pounded along a half mile astern of us, to make sure that we did not take on board at some place along the river men for the Cuban army.
This was the early morning of New Year’s Day, and the fine golden southern sunlight fell full upon the river. It flashed over the ancient Boutwell, until her white sides gleamed like pearl, and her rigging was spun into little threads of gold.
Cheers greeted the old Commodore from passing ship and from the shore. It was a cheerful, almost merry, beginning to our voyage. At Mayport, however, we changed our river pilot for a man who could take her to open sea, and again the Commodore was beached. The Boutwell was fussing around us in her venerable way, and, upon seeing our predicament, she came again to assist us, but this time, with engines reversed, the Commodore dragged herself away from the grip of the sand and again headed for the open sea.
The captain of the revenue cutter grew curious. He hailed the Commodore: “Are you fellows going to sea today?”
Captain Murphy of the Commodore called back: “Yes, sir.”
And then as the whistle of the Commodore saluted him, Captain Kilgore doffed his cap and said: “Well, gentlemen, I hope you have a pleasant cruise,” and this was our last word from shore.
When the Commodore came to enormous rollers that flee over the bar a certain light-heartedness departed from the ship’s company.
As darkness came upon the waters, the Commodore was a broad, flaming path of blue and silver phosphoreseance , and as her stout bow lunged at the great black waves she threw flashing, roaring cascades to either side. And all that was to be heard was the rhythmical and mighty pounding of the engines. Being an inexperienced filibuster, the writer had undergone considerable mental excitement since the starting of the ship, and in consequence he had not yet been to sleep and so I went to the first mate’s bunk to indulge myself in all the physical delights of holding one’s-self in bed. Every time the ship lurched I expected to be fired through a bulkhead, and it was neither amusing nor instructive to see in the dim light a certain accursed valise aiming itself at the top of my stomach with every lurch of the vessel.
THE COOK IS HOPEFUL.
The cook was asleep on a bench in the galley. He is of a portly and noble exterior, and by means of a checker board he had himself wedged on this bench in such a manner the motion of the ship would be unable to dislodge him. He woke as I entered the galley and delivered himself of some dolorous sentiments: “God,” he said in the course of his observations, “I don’t feel right about this ship, somehow. It strikes me that something is going to happen to us. I don’t know what it is, but the old ship is going to get it in the neck, I think.”
“Well, how about the men on board of her?” said I. “Are any of us going to get out, prophet?”
“Yes,” said the cook. “Sometimes I have these damned feelings come over me, and they are always right, and it seems to me, somehow, that you and I will both get and meet again somewhere, down at Coney Island, perhaps, or some place like that.”
ONE MAN HAS ENOUGH.
Finding it impossible to sleep, I went back to the pilot house. An old seaman, Tom Smith, from Charleston, was then at the wheel. In the darkness I could not see Tom’s face, except at those times when he leaned forward to scan the compass and the dim light from the box came upon his weatherbeaten features.
“Well, Tom,” said I, “how do you like filibustering?”
He said “I think I am about through with it. I’ve been in a number of these expeditions and the pay is good, but I think if I ever get back safe this time I will cut it.”
I sat down in the corner of the pilot house and almost went to sleep. In the meantime the captain came on duty and he was standing near me when the chief engineer rushed up the stairs and cried hurriedly to the captain that there was something wrong in the engine room. He and the captain departed swiftly.
I was drowsing there in my corner when the captain returned, and, going to the door of the little room directly back of the pilothouse, he cried to the Cuban leader:
“Say, can’t you get these fellows to work. I can’t talk their language and I can’t get them started. Come on and get them going.”
HELPS IN THE FIREROOM.
The Cuban leader turned to me and said: “Go help in the fireroom. They are going to bail with buckets.”
The engine room, by the way, represented a scene at this time taken from the middle kitchen of hades. In the first place, it was insufferably warm, and the lights burned faintly in a way to cause mystic and grewsome shadows. There was a quantity of soapish sea water swirling and swishing among machinery that roared and banged and clattered and steamed, and, in the second place, it was a devil of a ways down below.
Here I first can to know a certain young oiler named Billy Higgins. He was sloshing around this inferno filling buckets with water and passing them to a chain of men that extended up the ship’s side. Afterward we got orders to change our point of attack on water and to operate through a little door on the windward side of the ship that led into the engine room.
NO PANIC ON BOARD.
During this time there was much talk of pumps out of order and many other statements of a mechanical kind, which I did not altogether comprehend but understood to mean that there was a general and sudden ruin in the engine room.
There was no particular agitation at this time, and even later there was never a panic on board the Commodore. The party of men who worked with Higgins and me at this time were all Cubans, and we were under the direction of the Cuban leaders. Presently we were ordered again to the after hold, and there was some hesitation about going into the abominable fireroom again, but Higgins dashed down the companionway with a bucket.
The heat and hard work in the fireroom affected me and I was obliged to come on deck again. Going forward, I heard as I went talk of lowering the boats. Near the corner of the galley the mate was talking with a man.
“Why don’t you send up a rocket?” said this unknown man. And the mate replied: “What the hell do we want to send up a rocket for? The ship is all right.”
Returning with a little rubber and cloth overcoat, I saw the first boat about to be lowered. A certain man was the first person in this first boat, and they were handing him in a valise about as large as a hotel. I had not entirely recovered from astonishment and pleasure in witnessing this noble deed when I saw another valise go to him.
HUMAN HOG APPEARS.
This valise was not perhaps so large as a hotel, but it was a big valise anyhow. Afterword there went to him something which looked to me like an overcoat.
Seeing the chief engineer leaning out of his little window, I remarked to him:
“What do you think of that blank, blank, blank?”
“Oh, he’s a bird,” said the old chief.
It was now that was heard the order to get away the lifeboat, which was stowed on top of the deckhouse. The deckhouse was a mighty slippery place, and with each roll of the ship, the men there thought themselves likely to take headers into the deadly black Sea.
Higgins was on top of the deckhouse, and, with the first mate and two colored stokers, we wrestled with that boat, which, I am willing to swear, weighed as much as a Broadway cable car. She might have been spiked to the deck. We could have pushed a little brick schoolhouse along a corduroy road as easily as we could have moved this boat. But the first mate got a tackle to her from a leeward davit, and on the deck below the captain corralled enough men to make an impression upon the boat.
We were ordered to cease hauling them, and in this lull the cook of the ship came to me and said: “What are you going to do?”
I told him of my plans, and he said:
“Well, my God, that’s what I am going to do.”
Now the whistle of the Commodore had been turned loose, and if there ever was a voice of despair and death, it was in the voice of this whistle. It had gained a new tone. It was as if its throat was already choked by the water, and this cry on the sea at night, with a wind blowing the spray over the ship, and the waves roaring over the bow, and swirling white along the decks, was to each of us probably a song of man’s end.
It was now that the first mate showed a sign of losing his grip. To us who were trying in all stages of competence and experience to launch the lifeboat he raged in all terms of fiery satire and hammerlike abuse. But the boat moved at last and swung down toward the water.
Afterward, when I went aft, I saw the captain standing, with his arm in a sling, holding on to a stay with his one good hand and directing the launching of the boat. He gave me a five-gallon jug of water to hold, and asked me what I was going to do. I told him what I thought was about the proper thing, and he told me then that the cook had the same idea, and ordered me to go forward and be ready to launch the ten-foot dingy.
IN THE TEN-FOOT DINGY.
I remember well that he turned then to swear at a colored stoker who was prowling around, done up in life preservers until he looked like a feather bed. I went forward with my five-gallon jug of water, and when the captain came we launched the dingy, and they put me over the side to fend her off from the ship with an oar.
They handed me down the water jug, and then the cook came into the boat, and we sat there in the darkness, wondering why, by all our hopes of future happiness, the captain was so long in coming over to the side and ordering us away from the doomed ship.
The captain was waiting for the other boat to go. Finally he hailed in the dark-ness: “Are you all right, Mr. Graines?”
The first mate answered: “All right, sir.”
“Shove off, then,” cried the captain.
The captain was just about to swing over the rail when a dark form came forward and a voice said: “Captain, I go with you.”
The captain answered: “Yes, Billy; get in.”
HIGGINS LAST TO LEAVE SHIP.
It was Billy Higgins, the oiler. Billy dropped into the boat and a moment later the captain followed, bringing with him an end of about forty yards of lead line. The other end was attached to the rail of the ship.
As we swung back leeward the captain said: “Boys, we will stay right near the ship till she goes down.”
This cheerful information, of course, filled us all with glee. The line kept us headed properly into the wind, and as we rode over the monstrous waves we saw upon each rise the swaying lights of the dying Commodore.
When came the gray shade of dawn, the form of the Commodore grew slowly clear to us as our little ten-foot boat rose over each swell. She was floating with such an air of buoyancy that we laughed when we had time, and said “What a gag it would be on those other fellows if she didn’t sink at all.”
But later we saw men aboard of her, and later still they began to hail us.
HELPING THEIR MATES.
I had forgot to mention that previously we had loosened the end of the lead line and dropped much further to leeward. The men on board were a mystery to us, of course, as we had seen all the boats leave the ship, but did not approach too near, because we were four men in a ten-foot boat, and we knew that the touch of a hand on our gunwale would assuredly swamp us.
The first mate cried out from the ship that the third boat had foundered alongside. He cried that they had made rafts, and wished us to tow them.
The captain said, “All right.”
Their rafts were floating astern. “Jump in,” cried the captain, but there was a singular and most harrowing hesitation. There were the five white men and two negroes. This scene in the gray light of morning impressed one as would a view into some place where ghosts move slowly. These seven men on the stern of the sinking Commodore were silent. Save the words of the mate to the captain there was no talk. Here was death, but here also was almost singular and indefinable kind of fortitude.
Four men, I remember, clambered over the railing and stood there watching the cold, steely sheen of the sweeping waves.
“Jump,” cried the captain again.
The old chief engineer first obeyed the order. He landed on the outside raft and the captain told him how to grip the raft and he obeyed as promptly and as docilely as a scholar in riding school.
A stoker followed him, and then the first mate threw his hands over his head and plunged into the sea. He had no life belt and for my part, even when he did this horrible thing, I somehow felt that I could see in the expression of his hands, and in the very toss of his head, as he leaped thus to death, that it was a rage, rage, rage unspeakable that was in his heart at the time.
And then I saw Tom Smith, the man who was going to quit filibustering after this expedition, jump to a raft and turn his face toward us. On board the Commodore three men strode, still in the silence and with their faces turned toward us. One man had his arms folded and was leaning against the deckhouse. His feet were crossed, so that the toe of his left foot pointed downward. There they stood gazing at us, and neither from the deck nor from the rafts was a voice raised. Still was there this silence.
TRIED TO TOW THE RAFTS.
The colored stoker on the first raft threw us a line and we began to tow. Of course, we perfectly understood the absolute impossibility of any such thing; our dingy was within six inches of the water’s edge, there was an enormous sea running, and I knew that under the circumstances a tug-boat would have no light task in moving these rafts.
But we tried it, and would have continued to try it indefinitely, but that something critical came to pass. I was at an oar and so faced the rafts. The cook controlled the line. Suddenly the boat began to go backward and then we saw this negro on the first raft pulling on the line hand over hand and drawing us to him.
He had turned into a demon. He was wild—wild as a tiger. He was crouched on his raft and ready to spring. His eyes were almost white. HIs face was the face of a lost man reaching upward, and we knew that the weight of his hand on our gunwale doomed us.
THE COMMODORE SINKS.
The cook let go of the line. We rowed around to see if we could not get a line from the chief engineer, and all this time, mind you, there were no shrieks, no groans, but silence, silence, and silence, and then the Commodore sank.
She turned to windward, then swung afar back, righted and dove into the sea, and the rafts were suddenly swallowed by this frightful maw of the ocean. And then by the men on the ten-foot dingy were words said that were still not words—something far beyond words.
The lighthouse of Mosquito Inlet stuck up above the horizon like the point of a pin. We turned our dinghy toward the shore.
The history of life in an open boat for thirty hours would no doubt be instructive for the young, but none is to be told here now. For my part I would prefer to tell the story at once, because from it would shine the splendid manhood of Captain Edward Murphy and of William Higgins, the oiler, but let it suffice at this time to say that when we were swamped in the surf and making the best of our way toward the shore the captain gave orders amid the wildness of the breakers as clearly as if he had been on the quarter deck of a battleship.
John Kitchell of Daytona came running down the beach, and as he ran the air was filled with clothes. If he had pulled a single lever and undressed, even as the fire horses harness, he could not seem to me to have stripped with more speed. He dashed into the water and grabbed the cook. Then he went after the captain, but the captain sent him to me, and then it was that he saw Billy Higgins, lying with his forehead on sand that was clear of the water, and he was dead.