“THE old cat’s tumbled down the ventilator, sir, and he’s swearing away under the fumace-door in the stoke-hole,” said the second officer to the Captain of the Whanghoa, “Now what in thunder was Erastasius doing at the mouth of the ventilator? It’s four feet from the ground and painted red at that. Any of the children been amusing themselves with him, d’you think? I wouldn’t have Erastasius disturbed in his inside for all the gold in the treasury,” said the Captain. “Tell some one to bring him up, and handle him delicately, for he’s not a quiet beast.”
In three minutes a bucket appeared on deck. It was covered with a wooden lid. “Think he have make die this time,” said the Chinese sailor who carried the coffin, with a grin, “Catchee him topside coals—no open eye—no spit—no sclatchee my. Have got bucket, allee same, and make tight. See!”
He dived his bare arm mider the lid, but withdrew it with a yell, dropping the bucket at the same time. “Hya! Can do. Maskee dlop down—masky spilum coal. Have catchee my light there.”
Blood was trickling from his elbow. He moved aft, while the bucket, mysteriously worked by hidden force, trundled to and fro across the decks, swearing aloud.
Emerged finally Erastasius, tom-cat and grandfather-in-chief of the Whanghoa— a gaunt brindled beast, lacking one ear, with every hair on his body armed and erect. He was patched with coal-dust, very stiff and sore all over, and very anxious to take the world into his confidence as to his wrongs. For this reason he did not run when he was clear of the bucket, but sitting on his hunkers regarded the Captain, as who would say: “You hold a master’s certificate and call yourself a seaman, and yet you allow this sort of thing on your boat”
“Guess I must apologise, old man,” said the Captain gravely. “Those ventilators are a little too broad in the beam for a passenger of your build. What made you walk down it? Not a rat, eh? You’re too well fed to trouble of rats. Drink was it.”
Erastasius turned his back on the Captain. He was a tailless Japanese cat, and the abruptness of his termination gave him a specially brusque appearance.
“Shouldn’t wonder if the old man hasn’t been stealing something and was getting away from the galley. He’s the biggest reprobate that ever shipped—and that’s saying something. No, he isn’t my property exactly. I’ve got a notion that he owns the ship. Gathered that from the way he goes round after six bells to see the lights out. The chief engineer says he built the engines. Anyway, the old man sits in the engine-room and sort of keeps an eye on the boilers. He was on the ship before I joined her—that’s seven years ago, when we were running up and down and around about the China Seas.”
Erastasius, his back to the company, was busied in cleaning his disarranged fur. The ventilator incident had hurt his feelings sorely.
“He knows we are talking about him,” continued the Captain. “He’s a responsible kind o’ critter. That’s natural when you come to think that he has saved a quarter of a million dollars. At present his wants are few—guess he would like a netting over those ventilators first thing—but someday he’ll begin to live up to his capital.’
“Saved a quarter of a million dollars! What securities did he invest ’em in?” said a man from Foochow.
Here, in this bottom. He saved the Whanghoa with a full cargo of tea, silk and opium, and thirteen thousand dollars in bar silver. Yes; that’s about the extent of the old man’s savings. I commanded. The old man was the rescuer, and I was more than grateful to him ’cause it was my darned folly that nearly bought us into trouble. I was new to these waters, new to the Chinaman and his facinating little ways, being a New England man by raising. Erstasius was raised by the Devil. That’s who his sire was. Never ran across his dam. Ran across a forsaken sea, though, in the Whanghoa, a little to the north-east of this, with eight hundred steerage passengers, all Chinamen, for various and undenominated ports. Had the pleasure of sending eighteen of ’em into the water. Yes, that’s so isn’t it old man?”
Earstasius finished licking himself and mewed affirmatively.
“Yes, we carried four white officers—a Westerner, two Vermont men, and myself. There were ten Americans, a couple of Danes and a half-caste knocking around the ship, and the crew were Chinese, but most of ’em good Chinese. Only good Chinese I ever met. We had our steerage passengers ’tween decks. Most of ’em lay around and played dominoes or smoked opium. We had bad weather at the start, and the steerage were powerful sick. I judged they would have no insides to them when the weather lifted, so I didn’t put any guards on them. Wanted all my men to work the ship. Engines rotten as Congress, and under sail half the time. Next time I carry Chinese steerage trash I’ll hire a Gatling and mount it on the ’tween-decks hatch.
“We were fooling about between islands— about a himdred and fifty thousand islands all wrapped up in fog. When the fog laid the wind, the engines broke down. One of the passengers—we carried no ladies that journey—came to me one evening. ‘I calculate there’s a conspiracy ’tween-decks,’ he said. ‘Those pigtails are talking together. No good ever came of pigtails talking. I’m from ’Frisco. I authoritate on these matters.’ ‘Not on this ship,’ I said: ‘I’ve no use for duplicate authority.’ ‘You’ll be homesick after nine this time to-morrow,’ he said and quit. I guess he told the other passengers his notions.
“Erastasius shared my cabin in general. I didn’t care to dispute with a cat that went heeled the way he did. That particular night when I came down he was not inclined for repose. When I shut the door he scrabbled till I let him out. When he was out he scrabbled to come back. When he was back, he jumped all round the shanty yowling. I stroked him, and the sparks irrigated his back as if ’twas the smoke-stack of a river steamer. ‘I’11 get you a wife, old man,’ I said, ‘next voyage. It is no good for you to be alone with me.’ ‘Whoopee, yoopee-yaw-aw-aw,’ said Erastasius. ‘Let me get out of this.’ I looked him square between the eyes to fix the place where I’d come down with a boot-heel (he was getting monotonous), and as I looked I saw the animal was just possessed with deadly fear —human fear—crawling, shaking fear. It crept out of the green of his eyes and crept over me in billowing waves—each wave colder than the last. ‘Unburden your mind, Erastasius,’ I said. ‘What’s going to happen?’ ‘Wheepee-yeepee-ya-ya-ya-woop,’ said Erastasius, backing to the door and scratching.
“I quit my cabin sweating big drops, and somehow my hand shut on my six-shooter. The grip of the handle soothes a man when he is afraid. I heard the whole ship ’tween-decks rustling under me like all the woods of Maine when the wind’s up. The lamp over the ’tween-decks was out. The steerage watchman was lying on the groimd, and the whole hive of Celestials were on the tramp—soft-footed hounds. A lantern came down the alleyway. Behind it was the passenger that had spoken to me, and all the rest of the crowd, except the half-caste.
“‘Are you homesick any now?’ said my passenger. The ’tween-decks woke up with a yell at the light, and some one fired up the hatch-way. Then we began our share of the fun— the ten passengers and I. Eleven six-shooters. That cleared the first rush of the pigtails, but we continued firing on principle, working our way down the steps. No one came down from the spar-deck to assist, though I heard considerable of a trampling. The pigtails below were growling like cats. I heard the look-out man shout, ‘Junk on the port bow,’ and the bell ring in the engine-room for full speed ahead. Then we struck something, and there was a yell inside and outside the ship that would have lifted your hair out. When the outside yell stopped, our pigtails were on their faces. ‘Run down a junk,’ said my passenger—‘their junk.’ He loosed three shots into the steerage on the strength of it. I went up on deck when things were quiet below. Some one had run our Dahlgren signal-gun forward and pointed it to the break of the fo’c’sle. There was the balance of a war junk—three spars and a head or two on the water, and the first mate keeping his watch in regular style.
“‘What is your share?’ he said. ‘We’ve smashed up a junk that tried to foul us. Seems to have affected the feelings of your friends below. Guess they wanted to make connection.’ ‘It is made,’ said I, ‘on the Glassy Sea. Where’s the watch?’ ‘In the fo’c’sle. The half-caste is sitting on the signal-gun smoking his cigar. The watch are speculatin’ whether he’ll stick the business-end of it in the touch-hole or continue smoking. I gather that gun is not empty.’ ‘Send ‘em down below to wash decks. Tell the quartermaster to go through their boxes while they are away. They may have implements.’
“The watch went below to clean things up. There were eighteen stiff uns and fourteen with holes through their systems. Some died, some survived. I did not keep particular count. The balance I roped up, and it employed most of our spare rigging. When we touched port there was a picnic among the hangmen. Seems that Erastasius had been yowling down the cabins all night before he came to me, and kept the passengers alive. The man that spoke to me said the old man’s eyes were awful to look at. He was dying to tell his fear, but couldn’t. When the passengers came forward with the light, the half-caste quit for topside and got the quartermaster to load the signal-gun with handspikes and bring it forward in case the fo’c’sle wished to assist in the row. That was the best half-caste I ever met. But the fo’c’sle didn’t assist. They were sick. So were the men below—horror-sick. That was the way the old man saved the Whanghoa.’