The Harbor
BOOK III

CHAPTER V

"Did you see him?" Eleanore asked that night.

"Yes—I saw him——"

I could feel her waiting, but I could not bring myself to talk. Eleanore wouldn't like J. K. She wouldn't like what I had told him I'd do. I was sorry now that I had, it was simply looking for trouble. I damned that challenge in Joe's voice. Why did he always get hold of me so?

"How did he look? Is he much changed?" Eleanore asked me quietly.

"Yes. He looks half sick—and old. He's been through a good deal," I answered.

"Did he talk about that?"

"Yes"—I hesitated—"and of what he wants to show me," I said. Eleanore looked quickly up.

"Are you going to see him soon again?"

"Yes—to-morrow morning—to have a look at his stoker friends. I want to have just one good look at the life that has made him what he is. That's all—that's all it amounts to——"

There was another silence. Then she came over behind my chair and I felt the cool quiet of her hand as she slowly stroked my forehead.

"You look tired, dear," she said.


Just before daylight the next morning I rose and dressed, swallowed some coffee and set out. I took a surface car downtown.

I had not been out at this hour in years. And as in my present mood, troubled and expectant, I watched the[Pg 244] streets in the raw half-light, they looked as utterly changed to me as though they were streets of a different world. The department store windows looked unreal. Their soft rich lights had been put out, and in this cold hard light of dawn all their blandishing ladies of wax appeared like so many buxom ghosts. Men were washing the windows. Women and girls were hurrying by, and as some of them stopped for a moment to peer in at these phantoms of fashion, their own faces looked equally waxen to me. A long, luxurious motor passed with a man and a woman in evening clothes half asleep in each other's arms. An old man with a huge pack of rags turned slowly and stared after them. The day's work was beginning. Peddlers trundled push-carts along, newspaper vendors opened their stands, milk wagons and trucks from the markets came by, some on the gallop. Our car had filled with people now. Men and boys clung to the steps behind and women and girls were packed inside, most of them hanging to the straps. How badly and foolishly dressed were these girls. There must be thousands of them out. Two kept tittering inanely. All the rest were silent.

By the time that I reached the docksheds the day was breaking over their roofs. It was freezing cold, and the chill was worse in the dock that I entered. I buttoned my ulster tighter. The big place was dark and empty. The dockers, I learned from the watchman, had quit work at three o'clock, for a few tons of fruit was all the freight that remained to be loaded. The ship was to sail at nine o'clock.

The stokers had not yet gone aboard. I found about a hundred of them huddled along the steel wall of the shed. Some of them had old leather grips or canvas bags, but many had no luggage at all. A few wore seedy overcoats, but the greater part had none, they stood with their hands in their ragged pockets, shivering and stamping. Most of them were undersized, some tough, some rather sickly. A dull-eyed, wretched, sodden lot. I got the liquor on[Pg 245] their breaths. A fat old Irish stoker came drifting half-drunk up the pier with a serene and waggish smile.

"Hello," said Joe at my elbow.

He looked more fagged than the day before. I noticed that his lips were blue and that his teeth were chattering.

"Joe," I said abruptly, "you're not fit to be here. Let's get out of this, you belong in bed." He glanced at me impatiently.

"I'm fit enough," he muttered. "We'll stay right here and see this show—unless you feel you want to quit——"

"Did I say I did? I'm ready enough——"

"All right, then wait a minute. They're about ready to go on board."

But as we stood and watched them, I still felt the chattering teeth by my side, and a wave of pity and anger and of disgust swept over me. Joe wouldn't last long at this kind of thing!

"What do you think of my friends?" he asked.

"I think you're throwing your life away!"

"Do you? How do you make it out?"

"Because they're an utterly hopeless crowd! Look at 'em—poor devils—they look like a lot of Bowery bums!"

"Yes—they look like a lot of bums. And they feed all the fires at sea."

"Are they all like these?" I demanded.

"No better dressed," he answered. "A million lousy brothers of Christ."

"And you think you can build a new world with them?"

"No—I think they can do it themselves."

"Do you know what I think they'll do themselves? If they ever do win in any strike and get a raise in wages—they'll simply blow it in on drink!"

Joe looked at me a moment.

"They'll do so much more than drink," he said. "Come on," he added. "They're going aboard."

They were forming in a long line now before the third-class gang-plank. As they went up with their packs on[Pg 246] their shoulders, a man at the top gave each a shove and shouted out a number, which another official checked off in a book. The latter I learned was the chief engineer. He was a lean, powerful, ruddy-faced man with a plentiful store of profanity which he poured out in a torrent:

"Come on! For Christ's sake! Do you want to freeze solid, you —— human bunch of stiffs?"

We came up the plank at the end of the line, and I showed him a letter which I had procured admitting us to the engine rooms. He turned us over promptly to one of his junior engineers, and we were soon climbing down oily ladders through the intricate parts of the engines, all polished, glistening, carefully cleaned. And then climbing down more ladders until we were, as I was told, within ten feet of the keel of the ship, we came into the stokers' quarters.

And here nothing at all was carefully cleaned. The place was foul, its painted steel walls and floor and ceiling were heavily encrusted with dirt. The low chamber was crowded with rows of bunks, steel skeleton bunks three tiers high, the top tier just under the ceiling. In each was a thin, dirty mattress and blanket. In some of these men were already asleep, breathing hard, snoring and wheezing. Others were crowded around their bags intent on something I could not see. Many were smoking, the air was blue. Some were almost naked, and the smells of their bodies filled the place. It was already stifling.

"Had enough?" asked our young guide, with a grin.

"No," I said, with an answering superior smile. "We'll stay a while and get it all."

And after a little more talk he left us.

"How do you like our home?" asked Joe.

"I'm here now," I said grimly. "Go ahead and show me. And try to believe that I want to be shown."

"All right, here comes our breakfast."

Two stokers were bringing in a huge boiler. They set it down on the dirty floor. It was full of a greasy, watery[Pg 247] soup with a thick, yellow scum on the top, through which chunks of pork and potato bobbed up here and there.

"This is scouse," Joe told me. Men eagerly dipped tin cups in this and gulped it down. The chunks of meat they ate with their hands. They ate sitting on bunks or standing between them. Some were wedged in close around a bunk in which lay a sleeper who looked utterly dead to the world. His face was white.

"He reminds me," said Joe, "of a fellow whose bunk was once next to mine. He was shipped at Buenos Ayres, where the crimps still handle the business. A crimp had carried this chap on board, dumped him, got his ten dollars and left. The man was supposed to wake up at sea and shovel coal. But this one didn't. The second day out some one leaned over and touched him and yelled. The crimp had sold us a dead one."

As Joe said this he stared down at the sleeper, a curious tensity in his eyes.

"Joe, how did you ever stand this life?"

My own voice almost startled me, it sounded so suddenly tense and strained. Joe turned and looked at me searchingly, with a trace of that old affection of his.

"I didn't, Kid," he said gruffly. "The two years almost got me. And that's what happens to most of 'em here. Half of 'em," he added, "are down-and-outers when they start. They're what the factories and mills and all the rest of this lovely modern industrial world throw out as no more wanted. So they drift down here and take a job that nobody else will take, it's so rotten, and here they have one week of hell and another week's good drunk in port. And when the barrooms and the women and all the waterfront sharks have stripped 'em of their last red cent, then the crimps collect an advance allotment from their future wages to ship 'em off to sea again."

"That's not true in this port," I retorted, eagerly catching him up on the one point that I knew was wrong. "They don't allow crimps in New York any more."[Pg 248]

"No," Joe answered grimly. "The port of New York has got reformed, it's become all for efficiency now. The big companies put up money for a kind of a seamen's Y. M. C. A. where they try to keep men sober ashore, and so get 'em back quick into holes like these, in the name of Christ.

"But there's one thing they forget," he added bitterly. "The age of steam has sent the old-style sailors ashore and shipped these fellows in their places. And that makes all the difference. These chaps didn't grow up on ships and get used to being kicked and cowed and shot for mutiny if they struck. No, they're all grown up on land, in factories where they've been in strikes, and they bring their factory views along into these floating factories. And they don't like these stinking holes! They don't like their jobs, with no day and no night, only steel walls and electric light! You hear a shout at midnight and you jump down into the stokehole and work like hell till four a. m., when you crawl up all soaked in sweat and fall asleep till the next shout. And you do this, not as the sailor did for a captain he knew and called 'the old man,' but for a corporation so big it has rules and regulations for you like what they have in the navy. You're nothing but a number. Look here."

He took me to a bulletin that had just been put up on the wall. Around it men were eagerly crowding.

"Here's where you find by your number what shift you're to work in," he said, "and what other number you have to replace if he goes down. Heart failure is damn common here, and if your man gives out it means you double up for the rest of the voyage. So you get his number and hunt for him and size him up. You hope he'll last. I'll show you why."

He crawled down a short ladder and through low passageways dripping wet and so came into the stokehole.

This was a long, narrow chamber with a row of glowing furnace doors. Wet coal and coal-dust lay on the floor.[Pg 249] At either end a small steel door opened into bunkers that ran along the sides of the ship, deep down near the bottom, containing thousands of tons of soft coal, which the men called "trimmers" kept shoveling out to the stokers. As the voyage went on, Joe told me, these trimmers had to go farther and farther back into the long, black bunkers, full of stifling coal-dust, in which if the ship were rolling the masses of coal kept crashing down. Hundreds of men had been killed that way. In the stokehole the fires were not yet up, but by the time the ship was at sea the furnace mouths would be white hot and the men at work half naked. They not only shoveled coal into the flames, they had to spread it out as well and at intervals rake out the "clinkers" in fiery masses on the floor. On these a stream of water played, filling the chamber with clouds of steam. In older ships, like this one, a "lead stoker" stood at the head of the line and set the pace for the others to follow. He was paid more to keep up the pace. But on the fast new liners this pacer was replaced by a gong.

"And at each stroke of the gong you shovel," said Joe. "You do this till you forget your name. Every time the boat pitches, the floor heaves you forward, the fire spurts at you out of the doors and the gong keeps on like a sledgehammer coming down on top of your mind. And all you think of is your bunk and the time when you're to tumble in."

From the stokers' quarters presently there came a burst of singing.

"Now let's go back," he ended, "and see how they're getting ready for this."

As we crawled back the noise increased, and it swelled to a roar as we entered. The place was pandemonium now. Those groups I had noticed around the bags had been getting out the liquor, and now at eight o'clock in the morning half the crew were already well soused. Some moved restlessly about. One huge bull of a creature with large, limpid, shining eyes stopped suddenly with a puz[Pg 250]zled stare, then leaned back on a bunk and laughed uproariously. From there he lurched over the shoulder of a thin, wiry, sober man who, sitting on the edge of a bunk, was slowly spelling out the words of a newspaper aeroplane story. The big man laughed again and spit, and the thin man jumped half up and snarled.

Louder rose the singing. Half the crew was crowded close around a little red-faced cockney. He was the modern "chanty man." With sweat pouring down his cheeks and the muscles of his neck drawn taut, he was jerking out verse after verse about women. He sang to an old "chanty" tune, one that I remembered well. But he was not singing out under the stars, he was screaming at steel walls down here in the bottom of the ship. And although he kept speeding up his song the crowd were too drunk to wait for the chorus, their voices kept tumbling in over his, and soon it was only a frenzy of sound, a roar with yells rising out of it. The singers kept pounding each other's backs or waving bottles over their heads. Two bottles smashed together and brought a still higher burst of glee.

"I'm tired!" Joe shouted. "Let's get out!"

I caught a glimpse of his strained, frowning face. Again it came over me in a flash, the years he had spent in holes like this, in this hideous, rotten world of his, while I had lived joyously in mine. And as though he had read the thought in my disturbed and troubled eyes,

"Let's go up where you belong," he said.

I followed him up and away from his friends. As we climbed ladder after ladder, fainter and fainter on our ears rose that yelling from below. Suddenly we came out on deck and slammed an iron door behind us.

And I was where I belonged. I was in dazzling sunshine and keen frosty Autumn air. I was among gay throngs of people. Dainty women brushed me by. I felt the softness of their furs, I breathed the fragrant scent of them and of the flowers that they wore, I saw their fresh immaculate clothes, I heard the joyous tumult of their[Pg 251] talking and their laughing to the regular crash of the band—all the life of the ship I had known so well.

And I walked through it all as though in a dream. On the dock I watched it spellbound—until with handkerchiefs waving and voices calling down good-bys, that throng of happy travelers moved slowly out into midstream.

And I knew that deep below all this, down in the bottom of the ship, the stokers were still singing.[Pg 252]


Last | Next | Contents