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Chapter 1 — EARLY DAYS
3. My Friend The Murderer

      There is one story of those days in sailing ships that must be told: the story of my friend the carpenter who twice committed murder — conscientiously and in accordance with principles that were moral to him. The second of those murders was deliberately planned to pay the penalty, and he paid it.

He pleaded guilty, sentence was passed, and he was duly hanged. To be hanged was what he wished for; to be condemned and to die with unalleviated ignominy was what for a certain reason he intended.

His nationality was Norwegian but he called himself a Dutchman, in the sailor's generic sense of that word. His language was that of his class and race; he was quite illiterate and signed his name in the form of a cross. In certain directions his vocabulary was very full and varied, used with a fine distinction; for example, one could never mistake his use of the word ` bloody.' He knew nothing of its very respectable origin; it was used by his fellow seamen only as a coarse term of abuse; but with him it was otherwise. As often as not he used it in an excusatory manner. When, for example, he said:
` I know I am only a poor bloody Dutchman but etc.,' what he meant to imply was ` although I am a Scandinavian on board a British ship and you Britons think a hell of a lot of yourselves, yet etc.' And he might call a man a ` bloody fool ' merely as an affectionate reproof; but when he meant the real thing there could be no mistake about it.

     Imagine a man with a huge soul, with a pondering mind ever reaching out for good, with utter fearlessness, entire unselfishness; and with a personality — appearance and manner — which stamped him as a leader of men. Let this man be illiterate; let his circumstances be of a humble nature, from which change is impossible; let perhaps the fineness of his character bloom only late in life; let these things be, and you have my friend.

One thinks of what would have been the possibilities for such a man in other circumstances.

     Life on a sailing vessel was the life of a separate little world. A voyage to New Zealand, San Francisco and thence round the Horn would take, perhaps, eighteen months. The single passage from San Francisco to Cork took us exactly six months, and we sighted no land on the way; there was time to get to know each other. And this little world was interesting enough with its strange medley of personalities and its occasional spice of danger and hardship against the background of generaI dull monotony. The Captain drank — to the limit of his small stock; the Mate was a kindly and capable officer; the Second Mate a smart young Jew: they were the least interesting of the crowd. There was the half-witted apprentice whom the Captain baited. His aunt — a fried-fish shop keeper — had heavily insured his life and sent him to sea in hopes that were not fulfilled. Another apprentice was a budding poet; he ran away at San Francisco and eventually got a university degree. Another got stage-struck in New Zealand, fell violently in love with the prima-donna, by some means got to know her, was taken on as a super, and ended in a tobacconist's shop. And among the forecastle hands, from the pure bred, soot black, nigger cook — ` I am a true Barbadian born; I am no damned nigger, and don't you forget it ' — to the Liverpool street urchin and the absconding bank clerk turned seaman, there was not one whose history lacked in interest. Such was the little world dominated by the personality of my friend the carpenter.

Even forty years ago were degenerate times for sailing vessels and our little barque carried no boatswain. Yet never had a ship a finer boatswain than the self-appointed one which my friend made of himself. By precept — of great variety and vigour — and by example he kept the crew up to the mark as far as possible. It was he, more than the mates, who reproved the hangers-back when there was some dangerous work to do, and it was he who set the example by doing it himself. His age was probably about 65 — he did not know.

Early in the voyage I made friends with him, and I had the sense to know how great a compliment that friendship was to me. In our spare time we would forgather outside his shop and yarn; on such occasions his conversation was nearly always of a moral nature, of religion and of conduct in an introspective sense. His actual words cannot unfortunately be quoted; they are forgotten. All that remains is the sense of some of his views and some colour of his way of talking. On the subject of religion he said in effect: ` God! — of course there is God. How else could you explain anything; but about Jesus Christ I don't know the first damned thing. I suppose I ought to, and, that I don't, bothers me a bit; but I am only a poor ignorant bloody Dutchman and it is not my fault.' On the subject of conduct he said: ` A man may have a character like a kinked rope, and if he has, I don't know what happens to him in the end. But if a man is straight, if he does his own job and looks on his shipmates kindly, sees what they can do and cannot do, and acts accordingly, I don't believe that God will blame him for other things.'

It was some time before he told me of his views about human vermin. ` We kill fleas and bugs and rats because they are vermin. Why should not human vermin — men who are without doubt absolutely poisonous and harmful to the world — also be killed? ' It was still later that he told me how, some years before, when his ship had foundered and they had taken to their boats in the middle of the South, Atlantic with little chance of ever reaching shore, he had led the crew in the lynching of their vermin captain. They had left him cursing on the sinking ship, and from the off-lying boat my friend had voiced the judgment of the men that the most die, and why; but he jumped overboard and swam off to the boat; and alongside it they held him under water and drowned him like a real rat. The telling of this story by my friend only partly shocked me. I had myself seen examples of brutality in the exercise of the extraordinary power which a captain wielded on a sailing ship; and I had heard of many others. But against such a deliberate and cold-blooded killing I expressed myself strongly to my friend.

To this he replied in effect: ` You are a young man in a different state of life and you are educated. Perhaps you are right; but I can only act according to my lights, and I thought, and stilt think, that what I did was right. I count on God to deal with me according to my intentions.'

Those views of his were expressed quaintly and pungently but extraordinarily clearly in spite of his limited vocabulary, and they were interlarded richly with the swear-words of the sea. It was ethics that then appealed to him, though he did not know the word. But later, he asked me questions about religion. It was his initiative — I had shed my early piety to some extent — but I answered him as best I could. It started with my telling him, as a thing of interest, the origin of bloody ' as an oath. He was very much impressed but quite disgusted. ` By our Lady, is it? That's a hell of a swearword for a sailorman. I have cursed by Christ, but I'll be damned if I'II curse by a woman, whoever she was '; but it was from his interest in what she was that grew apparently his interest in Christ. My answers to his questions were brief and only historical. I made no attempt to teach a lesson; but he reached one as though by inspiration. Of prayer he would not know the meaning, and I never mentioned it; but I think that from that time he lived in one long prayer of unexpressed desire.

It was some weeks after this that he told me that he was seriously thinking of another killing. Quite unconsciously, I think, he had prepared the way for the confidence he gave.

I was reminded of the fact that our company had lost a half of their fleet of old-fashioned sailing vessels in the course of three years; that the ship in which my first voyage was made was a total loss seven days after starting, owing to our having been driven out of port in a gale of wind before our cargo had been properly secured, and that my friend Waitt had been wrecked again and lost; these and many other considerations pointed, my friend said, to the fact that for the sake of the high insurance the ships were sent to sea in the hope of their being wrecked. The instigation must have lain with the owners or one of them, but the actual perpetrator was the Ship's-husband.

What truth there was in this serious allegation it is impossible to say. The carpenter, who had been many years in the company, was convinced that it was so; my own experience confirmed his view: the circumstances attending our being forced to sea in very bad weather, in an unfit condition, were unquestionably disgraceful and suspicious.

In due course my friend reverted to the subject and explained himself. I wish that I could reproduce his words — that I could show by them how the finest shades of meaning can be conveyed by a very limited vocabulary, but I have forgotten them; I can only give the sense of what he said.

' I have made my last voyage. I am no longer fit to lead, because I am no longer fit to perform those dangerous tasks which in an emergency some one has to do. What I have done this voyage I have done with an effort. I am finished. I cannot bear to take a second place in ability to work. What then am I to do? I have no savings, for I have lived like other sailors. When a man of my kind comes to this stage, what is there left for him to do but die?

` But why should I die uselessly? I have lived all my life trying to do my job and trying to make others do theirs. I have had regard for the weak, but none for the mere laggard, the coward and the wicked. All this has been life to me. Cannot I die to the same purpose? Cannot I die in the same way that I have lived? I believe that I can. I have been thinking about it for a long time past.

' You know that I have put one human vermin out of the world. I have it in my mind to kill another and to die by being hanged for it. My only doubt is whether I can kill Captain Jones in cold blood. The other killing was different; there was a fit stage for it, and I had a crowd at my back. It was an execution. I felt no doubt and no meanness about it; I felt only the stern necessity for just retribution. But this affair! How very different it must be. I shaII face him, of course; but he won't know me, and there will be no time to say anything. And I shall be alone — so alone. No one at the back of me. All my life, whatever I did, I have had the little crowd there. I have thought I did not care for what they said; I know now that it meant a lot to me. And now this thing! What a stage! Coward — I, a coward! Jeers and loathing instead of a backing. You have told me that Christ died like that.'

There was a spell of silence after this, my old friend sucking his short clay pipe, his eyes with that curious inward look of pondering. `I have told you how much I have thought of God and how I trust Him to play the game with a poor old Dutchman, who has done his duty to his shipmates according to his lights. As an ignorant old man I have thought that there was no more to do. But now I am not so sure about it. I have been thinking a lot of what you have told me. Christ! He died like that, did He, with curses and jeers flung at Him? And I have only used His name to curse with. How often have I, in anger, said " Jesus wept," when things went wrong! ' Again a spell of silence.

I feel and I know that He will forgive me. I have no fear. But I would like of my own free will to do something to make up for my neglect of Him. But not to suck up, don't for a moment think that. You know it's not my way.

` I have chosen to die by being hanged after having done what I think will be a last good deed; but I shall do this for my own sake, because my time to die has come. I have looked forward to the judge asking me if I had anything to say before he passed sentence. He would have heard from the ignorant old Dutchman what he had never heard before. Coward! I — a coward! Can't you imagine the particular hell I should give him before I finished up with: " Now get on with your damned sentence." He would never forget it for the rest of his life. How I should have enjoyed that part; it would have been the moment of my life. But that is not how Christ died, and why should I, old Dutchman that I am, have what would seem to me a better death than His? I will give up that pleasure and take the sentence without a word; and Christ will understand. ' But I want you too to understand, and that is why I tell you.'

Knowing the man's self-reliance and his determination in carrying out what he thought was right, I realized that it was not unlikely he would carry out his threat, and end his life by deliberate choice on the scaffold.

In due course I said good-bye to a man for whom I had a huge respect and great affection. ` Chips, I know it is no use to tell you that you should not do as you have threatened. I can only hope you won't, and that somehow or other you may get a job more suited to you now than going to sea; but I would like you to promise me that if you get into any trouble you will send a message to me so that I can come and see you. Here is an address that will find me.'

A wonderful light came into the faded blue eyes of my old friend, and his wrinkled and weather-worn face took on an expression of kindliness, which I had never seen before to the same degree.

` Sonny boy, you are very kind to a poor old Dutchman. I have never had a shipmate like you before. You have helped my old eyes to see better, but what is right for you is not right for me. I don't know what I shall do, but you may bet your last Goddamned dollar I won't send for you. That is not my way. Good-bye.'

I suppose that the possibility of sending a warning to Captain Jones occurred to me, though I have 'no recollection of it. In any case, it could hardly have been of any use.

A couple of months later I saw an inch of news in a corner of the Standard. It read: ` Frank Olsen, carpenter of the barque Cordelia, was hanged in Hull jail for shooting Captain Jones in Broad Street.' A lump rose in my throat as I read that news. It rises now again as I tell this tale. 1

1 — As this true story, which happened over forty years ago, — is written as a tribute to the memory of my friend, — his real name is given. All others are fictitious. The existence of the shipping company concerned has ceased for many years.