Life Among The Savages, Part 3.
Whatever ailments afflicted him, Captain Stagg was punctual and enthusiastic. Only the faintest tendrils of rosy light had pushed their way through the eastern clouds when I arrived at the pier, yet he was waiting for me at the top of the gangplank, holding an open golden pocket watch and beckoning me to embark in a most voluminous fashion.
“Come on, my boy, come on!” he yelled. “You’ve wasted forty-seven seconds. The day outpaces us already!” Then the Captain barked out a rough and mighty laugh that so startled a passing laborer he fell off the pier.
I strode up the ramp, flush with excitement, and as I stepped onto the boards of the deck, I could not help but smile as a wave of ebullience rose up from my stomach and radiate to the tips of my fingers and the soles of my feet and the crown of my head. I felt as though I was glowing with a warm yellow light. Stagg’s crew moved expertly through the rigging and across the deck, finishing the last of their preparatory activities. I tasted the salt in the air, felt the ocean’s breeze on my cheek. I was traveling again, venturing into little-known regions of the world.
Looking me in the face, Captain Stagg grabbed me by the shoulders and endured another of his episodes. This time, as he squeezed my arms, he emitted a faint but audible squeak, remarkably even in timbre and tonality. I set my face into an aspect of benevolent tolerance and waited for the fit to subside, but the Captain’s squeak outmatched the limits of my resolve. I inquired of the captain if we should set sail.
Faint and even, the Captain squeaked.
I felt a nervous chuckle rise up out of my lungs as I reminded the captain that the day had already raced off ahead of us.
Staring into my eyes, the Captain squeaked.
Some of the deckhands began to look up from their labors and watch as the Captain’s rigorous grip and persistent squeak continued unabated. I acknowledged the peculiarity of the situation with a small nod and attempted to extricate myself from the Captain’s grip, but his fingers were singular in their strength and tenacity.
“Captain Stagg,” I said, returning his focused gaze.
The Captain squeaked.
Again, but louder, I said “Captain Stagg.”
The Captain squeaked.
“CAPTAIN STAGG!” I exclaimed, at considerable volume, and the paroxysm abruptly ended, so abruptly that the Captain himself appeared startled, bellowing out an inarticulate noise which soon took the shape of intelligible, though disjointed speech. “ARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRight then, my boy, yes. Just a — a little too soon then.” He exhaled and calmed himself. “Quite close, but– no matter. Perhaps next time.” The Captain looked at one of the riggers near the main mast. “Starkey! Secure that rope or I’ll split your belly wide open and wear your entrails for a scarf!” Stagg barked, and all the deckhands hurried themselves back to work. He quickly turned to me and said, smiling, “My apologies, sir. Salty talk’s the only the kind that works here. They’re good lads, stout lads, but prone to idleness. You’ve got to put the fear of God in ’em. The fear of God, or a split-open belly. But of course I’d never do such a thing. Starkey’s guts would make a frightful mess of my topcoat.” Again, fearsome laughter exploded from the Captain. From the pier, I heard an assortment of splashes, and cursing.
Captain Stagg then called out “Jones! Jones!” A wiry fellow with a shock of brown hair walked over at a leisurely pace, a pipe set firmly in his mouth and on his face, an admixture of amusement and weariness. He stood before us and puffed, in silence.
“Jones is the finest first mate sailing the fourteen seas. Jones, this–” here the Captain attempted to encircle me with an arm, but I avoided his grasp “– is the young gentleman I mentioned to you yesterday.
I introduced myself and shook Jones’ hand; he nodded and removed the pipe from between his lips. For a moment I thought he might speak, as his mouth opened to start to form the beginning of some utterance, but then he seemed to think better of it, replaced his pipe, and puffed anew.
“Take him below and give him our finest accommodations,” the Captain said.
“Can’t,” said Jones, around the bit of his pipe.
“Why the hell not?” the Captain barked, and then, distracted by the behavior of a crewman transporting some cordage, threw out his arm and pointed at the man. The deckhand froze where he stood. The Captain, eyes like twin coals in the depths of a furnace, pointed down, and the deckhand gently set the bundle of rope down on the boards and backed away, out of sight. “As I was saying,” the Captain said, calmer now, “why the hell not?”
“The widow von Kant,” said Jones.
“Ah yes. Our other passenger. Our second finest accommodations, then.”
“No, Cap’n,” said Jones. “The widow’s… parcel.”
The Captain threw his hat down onto the deck. “That blasted ‘parcel.’ Have you opened it up yet?”
“The widow’s quite attentive, sir.” In a more sheepish tone, he added: “We’re also still trying to find the crowbar.”
The Captain turned to me and said with an apologetic chuckle, “I am of course sorry for the inconvenience. Jones will show to our third finest cabin straight away. Starkey, who taught you to tie a sheepshank? I will tear your throat out with my bare hands! Terribly sorry, kidding of course. Jones, take him below. God damn my sleeves, Starkey, they’ll be stained in your blood before we cast off!” The Captain stormed off in Starkey’s direction, yelling “Kidding!” over his shoulder. Jones nodded toward the hatch that led below decks.
In the hope of beginning some conversation as we walked, I said “I’m indebted to Captain Stagg for granting me passage on his ship.”
“Did you pay your way?” Jones said.
“Yes,” I said.
“Then you’re not indebted to him.”
“Compensation aside, I feel an immense gratitude to the captain for taking me on at such short notice.”
Jones inhaled deeply from his pipe, and when he exhaled, the steep narrow staircase filled with an impressive amount of rich tobacco smoke. “I have found that where the Captain is concerned, it’s best to limit yourself only to debts that can be documented. Thoroughly documented.”
“He seems a relatively reasonable man. A bit excitable perhaps, and prone to hyperbole, but not irrational or unfair.”
“Hmm,” said Jones.
Conditions were cramped below decks, as is to be expected on any maritime vessel, and the corridor did not permit us to walk side by side. Spatial considerations became even more exigent when, just as we descended the stairs, the first compartment’s door swung open and a woman appeared.
“Oh,” she said, in a somewhat startled tone.
“Hmm,” said Jones.
I looked from Jones to the woman and then back to Jones.
“The widow Sieglinde Zuckerstück Reiniger von Kant,” Jones said.
I greeted the widow as best I could, given the constraints of the situation, and she returned my greeting with grace. We stood for a moment in the corridor, before the widow von Kant said, in perfect English: “I was hoping to go up to the deck.”
“Of course!” I said, and manuevered to clear the way. Her door opening outward having blocked our progress forward, and the steepness of the stairs preventing an easy retreat, Jones, the widow von Kant and myself were compressed into a small knot of humanity which had to pivot on a central axis to allow the woman to ascend. Having been forced into such close proximity with her, I can say with great certainty that she was one of the most winsome females I have had the pleasure of meeting during my travels, and I was almost immediately enamored of her. I commented on her beauty (in only the most appropriate and respectable manner) to Jones after she was above decks.
“Hmm,” said Jones, and shut the door to the widow’s compartment.
We passed another door, where I assumed the widow’s mysterious parcel was housed, and then on to a third door, which Jones indicated was to be my room. He opened the door and revealed a sailor, his head swathed in a red scarf and his considerable trunk wrapped in a white apron, surrounded by enormous piles of potatoes. Jones sighed through his pipe.
“I’ve a passenger for this room, Turner,” the first mate said.
“And I’ve got an arseload of potatoes,” said Turner. “Starkey’s clearing room near the galley, but for now they’re staying here.”
“Starkey’s up on deck.”
“Then it’ll take even longer for him to move these potatoes,” Turner said.
I took this moment to introduce myself to Turner, who shook my hand with a absent-mindedness that proved he had other matters on his mind, namely potatoes. From the furrows in his brow, I immediately surmised that Turner was the sort of individual who did not often engage in levity or light-heartedness.
“Pleasure to meet you,” Turner said, frowning.
I turned to the first mate and said, “I’m sure whatever temporary accommodations you can find will be more than adequate, Mr. Jones.” Jones looked at me, but said nothing.
Leaving Turner to his potatoes, we retraced our path to the second door. “You’ll have to stay here tonight, with the widow von Kant’s… parcel.” Jones opened the door.
The room itself was surprisingly spacious for seafaring quarters, but against the far wall loomed a massive box, clad in ebony wood. More a cabinet than a crate, it had no carved details or traditional decoration, except perhaps its sound and sturdy construction, which in and of itself was visually impressive. Equally impressive was its size; the cabinet extended far into the room leaving a narrow strip of bare floor near the door, less than two feet across.
Jones motioned for me to enter the room, and I did, walking sideways against the wall. “I’ll be back with bedclothes,” he said. Then he pointed at the parcel, said “Don’t touch that,” and slammed the door.
These quarters boasted a window that looked out on the sea, and the brightening dawn. I saw the new sunlight reflected on the lapping waves, and felt my exhilaration return. No matter, the Captain’s quirks, the crew’s strange manner, the cramped conditions of my first night onboard: adventure, and the mysteries of the Land of R______ were all in my nearest future, and I had much to be enthusiastic about.
It was at the exact moment of that realization that I noticed quiet but persistent scratching sounds emanating from the inside of the widow’s cabinet.
To be continued…