Under the Dragon Flag by James Allan

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Page 2

Apparently hard hit, the "houtcast," who for the time being certainly
had some grounds for so styling himself, leaned with his back against
the gate, as if the effort to stand upright was too much for him on
the top of his recent disappointment. His plight was undoubtedly
pitiable. He had no money, it was well after midnight, the city was
distant, and moreover the search for a lodging would in his condition
be a matter of time and difficulty. Taking pity on his forlorn state,
I offered him the shelter of my own roof for the night, an offer he
was not slow to accept, remarking that one gentleman should help
another; and that if I had any "tidy brandy" he would be able to get
on well enough until to-morrow. So we set out for my lodgings in Cecil

This chance meeting was the beginning of a long and intimate
acquaintance. In the course of conversation I disclosed to Charles
Webster--such was his name--the desperate state of my affairs, with
the gloomy prospect they entailed. The remedy he proposed--and when
sober he spoke well and sensibly--was drastic and by no means
unfeasible. "Cut it all and go to sea," he said. "You've enjoyed
yourself while your money lasted, and what's the good of money but to
spend? You've spent yours--now go to sea and get some more. That's how
I do--have a regular good blow-out when I draw my pay, and then ship
for another voyage."

"That is all very well for you," I replied, "but how can I, without
either training or experience, get a berth on board ship?"

"I can do it for you," replied Webster. "Lots of vessels are ordered
to sea in a hurry, and not particular in picking up a crew, or perhaps
a trifle over-loaded or not properly found, and short-handed in
consequence. That's the sort of craft I'd look out for you, and if one
wouldn't take you, another would. I'd tog you out like an A.B., and
swear you knew your duty."

"And what when they found I didn't?"

"Wouldn't matter a straw when we were afloat. All they could do would
be to d----n my eyes or yours and make the best of it. It's done
every day. Certificates go for nothing, they're so easily obtained.
When the voyage was over, you'd be up to a thing or two, and the
skipper would rather sign your papers than be at the bother of going
and swearing you weren't a thorough seaman; then you could get another
job without me. It's done constantly, I tell you, and why not? Nobody
can do anything without learning. You take a trip with me, and I'll
make a sailor of you. You've stood by me like a gentleman, and I'll
give you a lift if I can."

Well, to cut the story short, I resolved, after some cogitation, to
follow his advice, as, in the circumstances to which I had contrived
to reduce myself, I saw nothing better to do. My introduction to a
seafaring life was effected pretty much on the lines indicated in the
foregoing conversation. The change from the existence of a voluptuary,
squandering thousands on the wanton pleasure of the moment, to that of
a common sailor, was at first anything but agreeable, and often and
bitterly did I curse the follies of the past. However, we learn from
experience, and probably I have profited by the unpalatable lesson.
Webster was a firm ally, and showed that despite his dissolute and
reckless mode of living, he really did possess something of the
character which he claimed, that of a gentleman. Under his tuition,
and being moreover, like Cuddie Headrigg, "gleg at the uptak," I made
rapid progress in knowledge.

We made several voyages together. In the summer of the year 1894 we
were in San Francisco, and rather at a loose end; Webster with a good
deal of money in his possession, and spending it as usual in riotous
living. We were intimate at this time with a man named Francis Chubb,
an Australian by birth, an able seaman, and a very reckless, daring,
and resolute character. To him it is owing that I have this tale to
tell. One night as we were sitting over our potations, he made us a
singular communication and a singular proposition. A shipper and
merchant of the place, by whom he had often been employed, had, he
said, asked him if he was open to run a cargo of warlike stores for
the use of the Chinese soldiers in the struggle which had just broken
out, there being rumours that the Chinamen were ill-prepared for a
contest, and badly in need of supplies. Chubb added that he had
practically closed with the offer, and was looking about for men whom
he could depend upon to join him in the enterprise, which his
employer, foreseeing from the turn events were taking that the Chinese
ports were likely soon to be blockaded, meant as a "feeler" to test
the facilities for, and the profit likely to arise from, the
organization of a system for supplying those munitions of war of
which the Celestials were stated to be in want, some large orders
being alleged to have been lodged with American firms on their behalf.
Chubb was to command the vessel, and he offered to Webster and myself
the posts of first and second hands. The remuneration was very
handsome, and we, not adverse to the prospect of a little adventure,
had little hesitation in closing with the proposal, much to Chubb's
satisfaction, who said we were "just the sort he wanted." His
employer, Mr. H----, I no sooner heard named, than I remembered to
have heard described as a very keen hand, and not over-scrupulous.

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Books | Photos | Paul Mutton | Fri 28th Feb 2020, 13:32