C H A P T E R  V I I

Join the bark at Montevideo – A good crew – Small-pox breaks out – Bear up for Maldonado and Flores – No aid – Death of sailors – To Montevideo in distress – Quarantinc

AS soon as the case was over I posted on for Montevideo by steamer, where the bark had arrived only a few days ahead of me. I found her already stripped to a gantline though, preparatory to a long stay in port. I had given Victor strict orders to interfere in no way with the Spaniard, but to let him have full charge in nearly everything. I could have trusted the lad with full command, young as he was; but there was a strange crew of foreigners which might, as often happens, require maturer judgment to manage than to sail the vessel. As it proved, however, even the cook was in many ways a better man than the sailing-master.

Victor met me with a long face, and the sailors wore a quizzical look as I came over the vessel's side. One of them, in particular, whom I shall always remember, gave me a good-humoured greeting, along with his shake of the head, that told volumes; and next day was aloft, crossing yards, cheerfully enough. I found my Brazilian crew to be excellent sailors, and things on board the Aquidneck immediately began to assume a brighter appearance, aloft and alow.

Cargo was soon discharged, other cargo taken in, and the bark made ready for sea. My crew, I say, was a good one; but, poor fellows, they were doomed to trials – the worst within human experience, many of them giving up to grim death before the voyage was ended. Too often one bit of bad luck follows another. This rule brought us in contact with one of these small officials at Montevideo, better adapted to home life; one of those knowing, perhaps, more than need a cowboy, but not enough for consul. This official, managing to get word to my crew that a change of master dissolved their contract, induced them to come on shore and claim pay for the whole voyage and passage home on a steamer besides, the same as though the bark had been sold.

What overwhelming troubles may come of having incompetent officials in places of trust, the sequel will show. This unwise, even stupid interference, was the indirect cause of the sufferings and deaths among the crew which followed.

I was able to show the consul and his clerk that sailors are always engaged for the ship, and never for the master, and that a change of master did not in any way affect their contract. However, I paid the crew off, and then left it to their option to re-ship or not, for they were all right, they had been led to do what they did, and I knew that they wanted to get home, and it was there that the bark was going, direct.

All signed the articles again, except one, a longhaired Andalusian, whom I would not have longer at any price. The wages remained the same as before, and all hands returned to their duty cheerful and contented – but pending the consul's decision (which, by the way, I decided for him), they had slept in a contagioned house, where, alas, they contracted small-pox of the worst type.

We were now homeward bound. All the "runaway rum" that could be held out by the most subtle crimps of Montevideo could not induce these sober Brazilian sailors to desert their ship.

These "crimps" are land-sharks who get the sailors drunk when they can, and then rob them of their advance money. The sailors are all paid in advance; sometimes they receive in this way most of their wages for the voyage, which they make after the money is spent, or wasted, or stolen.

We all know what working for dead horse means – sailors know too well its significance.

As sailing day drew near, a half-day liberty to each watch was asked for by the men, who wanted to make purchases for their friends and relatives at Paranagua. Permission to go on shore was readily granted, and I was rewarded by seeing every one return to his ship at the time promised, and every one sober. On the morrow, which was sailing day, every man was at his post and all sang "Cheerily, ho!" and were happy; all except one, who complained of slight chills and a fever, but said that he had been subject to this, and that with a dose of quinine he would soon be all right again.

It appeared a small matter. Two days later though, his chills turned to something which I knew less about. The next day, three more men went down with rigor in the spine, and at the base of the brain. I knew by this that small-pox was among us!

We bore up at once for Maldonado, which was the nearest port, the place spoken of in "Gulliver's Travels," though Gulliver, I think, is mistaken as to its identity and location, arriving there before a gathering storm that blew wet and cold from the east. Our signals of distress, asking for immediate medical aid, were set and flew thirty-six hours before any one came to us; then a scared Yahoo (the country was still inhabited by Yahoos) in a boat rowed by two other animals, came aboard and said, "Yes, your men have got small-pox." "Vechega," he called it, but I understand the lingo of the Yahoo very well, I could even speak a few words of it and comprehend the meanings. "Vechega!" he bellowed to his mates alongside, and, turning to me, he said, in Yahoo: "You must leave the port at once," then jumping into his boat he hurried away, along with his scared companions.1

To leave a port in our condition was hard lines, but my perishing crew could get no succour at Maldonado, so we could do nothing but leave, if at all able to do so. We were indeed short-handed, but desperation lending a hand, the anchor was weighed and sufficient sail set on the bark to clear the inhospitable port. The wind blowing fair out of the harbour carried us away from the port towards Flores Island, for which we now headed in sore distress. A gale, long to be remembered, sprang suddenly up, stripping off our sails like autumn leaves, before the bark was three leagues from the place. We hadn't strength to clew up, so her sails were blown away, and she went flying before the mad tempest under bare poles. A snow-white sea-bird came for shelter from the storm, and poised on the deck to rest. The incident filled my sailors with awe; to them it was a portentous omen, and in distress they dragged themselves together and, prostrate before the bird, prayed the Holy Virgin to ask God to keep them from harm. The rain beat on us in torrents, as the bark tossed and reeled ahead, and day turned black as night. The gale was from E.S.E., and our course lay W.N.W. nearly, or nearly before it. I stood at the wheel with my shore clothes on, I remember, for I hadn't yet had time to change them for waterproofs; this of itself was small matter, but it reminds me now that I was busy with other concerns. I was always a good helmsman, and I took in hand now the steering of the bark in the storm – and I gave directions to Victor and the carpenter how to mix disinfectants for themselves, and medicines for the sick men. The medicine chest was fairly supplied.

Flores, when seen, was but a few ship's lengths away. Flashes of lightning revealed the low cliffs, amazingly near to us, and as the bark swept by with great speed, the roar of the breakers on the shore, heard above the din of the storm, told us of a danger to beware. The helm was then put down, and she came to under the lee of the island like a true, obedient thing.

Both anchors were let go, and all the chain paid out to both, to the bitter end, for the gale was now a hurricane. She walked away with her anchors for all that we could do, till, hooking a marine cable, one was carried away, and the other brought her head to the wind, and held her there trembling in the storm.

Anxious fear lest the second cable should break was on our minds through the night; but a greater danger was within the ship, that filled us all with alarm.

Two barks not far from us that night, with pilots on board, were lost in trying to come through where the Aquidneck, without a pilot and with but three hands on deck to work her, came in. Their crews, with great difficulty, were rescued and then carried to Montevideo. When all had been done that we three could do, a light was put in the rigging, that flickered in the gale and went out. Then wet, and lame, and weary, we fell down in our drenched clothes, to rest as we might – to sleep, or to listen to groans of our dying shipmates.

When daylight came (after this, the most dismal of all my nights at sea), our signals went up telling of the sad condition of the crew, and begging for medical assistance. Toward night the gale went down; but, as no boat came off, a gloom darker than midnight settled over the crew of the pest-ridden bark, and in dismay they again prayed to be spared to meet the loved ones awaiting them at home.

Our repeated signals, next day, brought the reply, "Stand in." Carramba! Why, we could hardly stand at all; much less could we get the bark underway, and beat in against wind and current. No one knew this better than they on the island, for my signals had told the whole story, and as we were only a mile and a half from the shore, the flags were distinctly made out. There was no doubt in our minds about that!

Late in the day, however, a barge came out to us, ill-manned and ill-managed by as scared a set of "galoots" as ever capsized a boat, or trembled at a shadow! The coxswain had more to say than the doctor, and the Yahoo – I forgot to mention that we were still in Yahoodom, but one would see that without this explanation – the Yahoo in the bow said more than both; and they all took a stiff pull from a bottle of cachazza,2the doctor having had the start, I should say, of at least one or two pulls before leaving- the shore, insomuch as he appeared braver than the rest of the crew.

The doctor, having taken an extra horn or two, with Dutch courage came on board, and brought with him a pound of sulphur, a pint of carbolic acid, and some barley – enough to feed a robin a few times, for all of which we were thankful indeed, our disinfectants being by this time nearly exhausted; then, glancing at the prostrate men, he hurried away, as the other had done at Maldonado. I asked what I should do with the dead through the night – bury them where we lay? "Oh, no, no!" cried the Yahoo in the bow; but the doctor pointed significantly to the water alongside! I knew what he meant!

That night we buried Josť, the sailor whose honest smile had welcomed me to my bark at Montevideo. I had ordered stones brought on deck, before dark, ostensibly to ballast the boat. I knew they would soon be wanted! About midnight, the cook called me in sore distress, saying that Jose was dying without confession!

So poor Josť was buried that night in the great river Plate! I listened to the solemn splash that told of one life ended, and its work done; but gloomy, and sad, and melancholy as the case was, I had to smile when the cook, not having well-secured the ballast, threw it over after his friend, exclaiming, "Good-bye, Josť, goodbye!" I added, "Good-bye, good shipmate, good-bye! I doubt not that you rest well!"

Next day, the signal from the shore was the same as the day before, "Stand in," in answer to my repeated call for help. By this time my men were demoralized and panic-stricken, and the poor fellows begged me, if the doctor would not try to cure them, to get a priest to confess them all. I saw a padre pacing the beach, and set flags asking him to come on board. No notice was taken of the signal, and we were now left entirely to ourselves.

After burying one more of the crew, we decided to remain no longer at this terrible place. An English telegraph tender passing, outward-bound, caught up our signals at that point, and kindly reported to her consul at Maldonado, who wired it to Montevideo.

The wind blowing away from the shore, as may it always blow when friend of mine nears that coast, we determined to weigh anchor or slip cable without further loss of time, feeling assured that by the telegraph reports some one would be on the look-out for us, and that the Aquidneck would be towed into port if the worst should happen – if the rest of her crew went down. Three of us weighed one anchor, with its ninety fathoms of chain, the other had parted on the windlass in the gale. The bark's prow was now turned toward Montevideo, the place we had so recently sailed from, full of hope and pleasant anticipation; and here we were, dejected and filled with misery, some of our number already gone on that voyage which somehow seems so far away.

At Montevideo, things were better. They did take my remaining sick men out of the vessel, after two days' delay; my agent procuring a tug, which towed them in the ship's boat three hundred fathoms astern. In this way they were taken to Flores Island, where, days and days before, they had been refused admittance! They were accompanied this time by an order from the governor of Montevideo, and at last were taken in. Two of the cases were, by this time, in the favourable change. But the poor old cook, who stood faithfully by me, and would not desert his old shipmates, going with them to the Island to care for them to the last, took the dread disease, died of it, and was there buried, not far from where he himself had buried his friend Josť, a short time before. The death of this faithful man occurred on the day that the bark finally sailed seaward, by the Island. She was in sight from the hospital window when his phantom ship, that put out, carried him over the bar! His widow, at Paranagua, I was told, on learning the fate of her husband, died of grief.

The work of disinfecting the vessel, at Montevideo, after the sick were removed, was a source of speculation that was most elaborately carried on. Demijohns of carbolic acid were put on board, by the dozen, at $3.00 per demijohn, all diluted ready for use; and a guardo was put on board to use it up, which he did religiously over his own precious self, in my after-cabin, as far from the end of the ship where the danger was as he could get. Some one else disinfected el proa, not he! Abundant as the stuff was, I had to look sharp for enough to wash out forward while aft it was knee-deep almost, at three dollars a jar! The harpy that alighted on deck at Maldonado sent in his bill for one hundred dollars – I paid eighty.

The cost to me of all this trouble in money paid out, irrelevantly to mention, was over a thousand dollars. What it cost me in health and mental anxiety cannot be estimated by such value. Still, I was not the greatest sufferer. My hardest task was to come, you will believe, at the gathering up of the trinkets and other purchases which the crew had made, thoughtful of wife and child at home. All had to be burned, or spoiled with carbolic acid! A hat for the little boy here, a pair of boots for his mamma there, and many things for the familia all around – all had to be destroyed!

1 In our discourse, Yahoo was spoken, but I write it in English because many of my readers would not understand the original. The signals that we used were made by universal code symbols For example, two flags hoisted representing "P" "D" signified "want (or wants) immediate medical assistance." And so on, by hoists of two, three or four flags representing the consonants, our wants and wishes could be made known, each possessing the key to the code.

Our commercial code of signals is so invented and arranged that no matter what tongues may meet, perhaps those utterly incomprehensible by word of mouth, yet by these signs communications may be carried on with great facility. The whole system is so beautifully simple that a child of ordinary intelligence can understand it. Even the Yahoos were made to comprehend – when not colour-blind. And, lest they should forget their lesson, a gunboat is sent out every year or two, to fire it into them with cannon.

2 This cachazza is said to be death to microbes, or even to larger worms; it will kill anything, in fact, except a Yahoo!