Desertion by W. W. Jacobs
An Extract from
The sun was just rising as the small tub-like steamer, or, to be
more correct, steam-barge, the Bulldog, steamed past the sleeping town
of Gravesend at a good six knots per hour.
There had been a little discussion on the way between her crew and
the engineer, who, down in his grimy little engine-room, did his own
stoking and everything else necessary. The crew, consisting of
captain, mate, and boy, who were doing their first trip on a steamer,
had been transferred at the last moment from their sailing-barge the
Witch, and found to their discomfort that the engineer, who had not
expected to sail so soon, was terribly and abusively drunk. Every
moment he could spare from his engines he thrust the upper part of his
body through the small hatchway, and rowed with his commander.
"Ahoy, bargee!" he shouted, popping up like a jack-in-the-box,
after a brief cessation of hostilities.
"Don't take no notice of 'im," said the mate. "'E's got a bottle of
brandy down there, an' he's 'alf mad."
"If I knew anything o' them blessed engines," growled the skipper,
"I'd go and hit 'im over the head."
"But you don't," said the mate, "and neither do I, so you'd better
"You think you're a fine feller," continued the engineer, "standing
up there an' playing with that little wheel. You think you're doing
all the work. What's the boy doing? Send him down to stoke."
"Go down," said the skipper, grinning with fury, and the boy
"You think," said the engineer pathetically, after he had cuffed
the boy's head and dropped him down below by the scruff of his neck,
"you think because I've got a black face I'm not a man. There's many a
hoily face 'ides a good 'art."
"I don't think nothing about it," grunted the skipper; "you do your
work, and I'll do mine."
"Don't you give me none of your back answers," bellowed the
engineer, "'cos I won't have 'em."
The skipper shrugged his shoulders and exchanged glances with his
sympathetic mate. "Wait till I get 'im ashore," he murmured.
"The biler is wore out," said the engineer, re-appearing after a
hasty dive below. "It may bust at any moment."
As though to confirm his words fearful sounds were heard proceeding
"It's only the boy," said the mate, "he's scared—natural."
"I thought it was the biler," said the skipper, with a sigh of
relief. "It was loud enough."
As he spoke the boy got his head out of the hatchway, and, rendered
desperate with fear, fairly fought his way past the engineer and
gained the deck.
"Very good," said the engineer, as he followed him on deck and
staggered to the side. "I've had enough o' you lot."
"Hadn't you better go down to them engines?" shouted the skipper.
"Am I your SLAVE?" demanded the engineer tearfully. "Tell me that.
Am I your slave?"
"Go down and do your work like a sensible man," was the reply.
At these words the engineer took umbrage at once, and, scowling
fiercely, removed his greasy jacket and flung his cap on the deck. He
then finished the brandy which he had brought up with him, and gazed
owlishly at the Kentish shore.
"I'm going to have a wash," he said loudly, and, sitting down,
removed his boots.
"Go down to the engines first," said the skipper, "and I'll send
the boy to you with a bucket and some soap."
"Bucket!" replied the engineer scornfully, as he moved to the side.
"I'm going to have a proper wash."
"Hold him!" roared the skipper suddenly. "Hold him!"
The mate, realising the situation, rushed to seize him, but the
engineer, with a mad laugh, put his hands on the side and vaulted into
the water. When he rose the steamer was twenty yards ahead.
"Go astarn!" yelled the mate.
"How can I go astarn when there's nobody at the engines?" shouted
the skipper, as he hung on to the wheel and brought the boat's head
sharply round. "Git a line ready."
The mate, with a coil of rope in his hand, rushed to the side, but
his benevolent efforts were frustrated by the engineer, who, seeing
the boat's head making straight for him, saved his life by an
opportune dive. The steamer rushed by.
"Turn 'er agin!" screamed the mate.
The captain was already doing so, and in a remarkably short space
of time the boat, which had described a complete circle, was making
again for the engineer.
"Look out for the line!" shouted the mate warningly.
"I don't want your line," yelled the engineer. "I'm going ashore."
"Come aboard!" shouted the captain imploringly, as they swept past
again. "We can't manage the engines."
"Put her round again," said the mate. "I'll go for him with the
boat. Haul her in, boy."
The boat, which was dragging astern, was hauled close, and the mate
tumbled into her, followed by the boy, just as the captain was in the
middle of another circle?-to the intense indignation of a crowd of
shipping, large and small, which was trying to get by.
"Ahoy!" yelled the master of a tug which was towing a large ship."
Take that steam roundabout out of the way. What the thunder are you
"Picking up my engineer," replied the captain, as he steamed right
across the other's bows, and nearly ran down a sailing-barge, the
skipper of which, a Salvation Army man, was nobly fighting with his
"Why don't you stop?" he yelled.
"'Cos I can't," wailed the skipper of the Bulldog, as he threaded
his way between a huge steamer and a schooner, who, in avoiding him,
were getting up a little collision on their own account.
"Ahoy, Bulldog! Ahoy!" called the mate. "Stand by to pick us up.
We've got him."
The skipper smiled in an agonised fashion as he shot past, hotly
pursued by his boat. The feeling on board the other craft as they got
out of the way of the Bulldog, and nearly ran down her boat, and then,
in avoiding that, nearly ran down something else, cannot be put into
plain English, but several captains ventured into the domains of the
ornamental with marked success.
"Shut off steam!" yelled the engineer, as the Bulldog went by
again. "Draw the fires, then."
"Who's going to steer while I do it?" bellowed the skipper, as he
left the wheel for a few seconds to try and get a line to throw them.
By this time the commotion in the river was frightful, and the
captain's steering, as he went on his round again, something
marvellous to behold. A strange lack of sympathy on the part of
brother captains added to his troubles. Every craft he passed had
something to say to him, busy as they were, and the remarks were as
monotonous as they were insulting. At last, just as he was resolving
to run his boat straight down the river until he came to a halt for
want of steam, the mate caught the rope he flung, and the Bulldog went
down the river with her boat made fast to her stern.
"Come aboard, you—you lunatic!" he shouted.
"Not afore I knows 'ow I stand," said the engineer, who was now
beautifully sober, and in full possession of a somewhat acute
"What do you mean?" demanded the skipper.
"I don't come aboard," shouted the engineer, "until you and the
mate and the bye all swear as you won't say nothing about this little
"I'll report you the moment I get ashore," roared the skipper.
"I'll give you in charge for desertion. I'll"—
With a supreme gesture the engineer prepared to dive, but the
watchful mate fell on his neck and tripped him over a seat.
"Come aboard!" cried the skipper, aghast at such determination.
"Come aboard, and I'll give you a licking when we get ashore instead."
"Honour bright?" inquired the engineer.
"Honour bright," chorused the three.
The engineer, with all the honours of war, came on board, and,
after remarking that he felt chilly bathing on an empty stomach, went
down below and began to stoke. In the course of the voyage he said
that it was worth while making such a fool of himself if only to see
the skipper's beautiful steering, warmly asseverating that there was
not another man on the river that could have done it. Before this
insidious flattery the skipper's wrath melted like snow before the
sun, and by the time they reached port he would as soon have thought
of hitting his own father as his smooth-tongued engineer.