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Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature:
An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891.
Vols. IX–XI: Literature of the Republic, Part IV., 1861–1889

The Pretty Pass Things Came to

By William Douglas O’Connor (1832–1889)

[Born in Boston, Mass. Died in Washington, D.C., 1889. Harrington: a Story of True Love. 1860.]

IN the mean time things had come to a pretty pass in the private counting-room of Mr. Atkins’s office on Long Wharf.

“Yes, sir, things have come to a pretty pass when such an infernal rascal undertakes to let a black beggar loose from aboard my brig,” foamed Captain Bangham, red with passion, and pounding the desk with his fist.

The merchant sat in an arm-chair near the desk, looking at the captain, with iron-clenched jaws, his eyes sparkling with rage in his set blanched face.

“If I ever heard of such a thing in all my life, Bangham!” he exclaimed, slapping both arms of his chair with his palms, and glaring all around the little mahogany-furnished office. “But where were you when this was done?”

“I, sir? Asleep in the cabin, Mr. Atkins. Never knew a thing about it, sir, till this morning. Just for special safety I didn’t have the brig hauled up to the dock yesterday, but let her lay in the stream. ‘Jones,’ says I, ‘have you seen the nigger this morning?’ ‘No I haven’t,’ says he, cool as you please. ‘I guess I’ll take a look at him,’ says I, and so I took a biscuit and a can of water, and toted down to the hole where I had the nasty devil tied up, and begod, he was gone! I tumbled up on deck: ‘Jones,’ I shouted, ‘where’s the nigger?’ ‘I don’t know where he is now,’ says he, lazy as a ship in the doldrums. ‘All I know is,’ says he, ‘that I rowed him ashore about midnight, and told him to put for it.’ By”—— gasped Captain Bangham, with a frightful oath, “I was so mad that I couldn’t say a word. I just ran into the cabin, and when I came out, Jones wasn’t to be seen.—Hallo, there he is now!” cried the captain, starting to his feet and pointing out of the window to a tall figure lounging along the wharf, and looking at the shipping.

The merchant jumped from his chair, threw up the window, and shouted, “Here, you, Jones! Come in here.”

The figure looked up nonchalantly, and lounged across the street toward the office.

“He’s coming,” said the merchant, purple with excitement, and sinking back into his chair.

They waited in silence, and presently the tall figure of the mate was seen in the outer office, through the glass door, lounging toward them. He opened the door in a minute, and came in carelessly, chewing slowly, and nodding once to Mr. Atkins. A tall man, dressed sailor-fashion, in a blue shirt and pea-jacket, with a straw hat set negligently on his head, and a grave, inscrutable, sunburnt face, with straight manly features and dull-blue eyes.

“Mr. Jones,” said the merchant, his face a deeper purple, but his voice constrained to the calm of settled rage, “this is a fine liberty you have taken. I want to know what you mean by it.”

“What do you refer to, Mr. Atkins?” returned the mate, stolidly.

“What do I refer to, sir? You know what I refer to. I refer to your taking that man from my brig,” roared the merchant.

“Mr. Atkins,” replied the mate, phlegmatically, “Bangham, there, was going to take that poor devil back to Orleans. You don’t mean to tell me that you meant he should do it?”

“Yes, sir, I did mean he should do it!” the merchant vociferated.

“Then you’re a damned scoundrel,” said the mate, with the utmost composure.

Captain Bangham gave a long whistle, and sat mute with stupefaction. Mr. Atkins turned perfectly livid, and stared at the mate with his mouth pursed into an oval hole, perfectly aghast at this insolence, and almost wondering whether he had heard aright.

“You infernal rascal,” he howled, springing to his feet the next instant, purple with rage, “do you dare to apply such an epithet to me? You—to me?”

“To you?” thundered the seaman, in a voice that made Mr. Atkins drop into his chair as if he were shot. “To you? And who are you? You damned lubberly, purse-proud aristocrat, do you want me to take you by the heels and throw you out of that window? Call me that name again, and I’ll do it as soon as I’d eat. You, indeed! You’re the Lord High Brown, aint you? You’re the Lord Knows Who, you blasted old money-grubber, aint you? You, indeed!”

In all his life, Mr. Atkins had never been so spoken to. He sat in a sort of horror, gazing with open mouth and glassy eyes at the sturdy face of the seaman, on which a brown flush had burned out, and the firm, lit eyes of which held him spell-bound. Bangham, too—horror-stricken, wonder-stricken, thunder-stricken—sat staring at Jones for a minute, then burst into a short, rattling laugh, and jumping to his feet, cried, “Oh, he’s mad, he’s mad, he’s mad, he’s got a calenture, he’s got a calenture, he’s mad as a March hare,” capering and hopping and prancing, meanwhile, in his narrow confine, as if he would jump out of his skin.

“You, too, Bangham,” said the mate, making a step toward him, with a menacing gesture, at which the captain stopped capering, and shrank, while Mr. Atkins slightly started in his chair, “you just clap a stopper on that ugly mug of yours, and stop your monkey capers, or you’ll have me afoul of you. I haven’t forgot your didoes with the men aboard the Soliman. Just you say another word now, and I’ll put in a complaint that’ll lay you by the heels in the State Prison, where you ought to have been long ago, you ugly pirate, you!”

The captain evidently winced under this threat, which Mr. Jones delivered with ominous gravity, slowly shaking, meanwhile, his clenched fist at him.

“And now look here, you brace of bloody buccaneers,” continued the irreverent seaman, “short words are best words with such as you. I untied that poor old moke of a nigger last night, and rowed him ashore. What are ye going to do about it?”

Evidently a question hard to answer. Merchant and captain, stupefied and staring, gave him no reply.

“Hark you, now, Atkins,” he went on. “We found that man half dead in the hold when we were three days out—a sight to make one’s flesh crawl. The bloody old pirate he’d run away from had put a spiked collar on his neck, just as if he was a brute, with no soul to be saved. I’m an old sea-dog—I am; and I’ve seen men ill-treated in my time, but I’m damned if I ever seen a man ill-treated like that God-forsaken nigger. He’d run away, and no blame to him for running away. He’d been livin’ in swamps with snakes and alligators, and if he hadn’t no right to his freedom, he’d earned one fifty times over, and it’s my opinion that a man who goes through what he did has more right to his freedom than two beggars like you, who have never done the first thing to deserve it. Mind that now, both of ye!”

The mate paused a moment, hitching up his trousers, and rolling his tobacco from one side of his twitching mouth to the other, and then, with his face flushed, and his blue eyes gleaming savagely, went on:

“What’s the first thing that brute there did to him? Kicked him, and he lyin’ half dead. Then in a day or two, when the poor devil got his tongue, he told how he’d got away, and the sort of pirate he’d got away from. God! when we all a’most blubbered like babes, what did that curse there do? Knocked the man down, and beat his head on the deck, till we felt like mutiny and murder, every man of us! And then when we’d got the poor devil below, sorter comfortable, down comes Bangham, and hauls him off to stick him into a nasty hole under hatches, and there he kep’ him the whole passage, half-starved, among the rats and cockroaches. Scarce a day of his life aboard that he didn’t go down and kick and maul him. He couldn’t keep his hands off him—no, he couldn’t. When I took the man ashore in the dead o’ night, he was nothin’ but a bundle o’ bones and nasty rags, and he made me so sick I couldn’t touch him. That’s the state he was in. Now, then, look here.”

The mate paused again for a moment, turning his quid, with his face working, and laying the fingers of his right hand in the palm of his left, began again in a voice gruff and grum:

“That infernal buccaneer, Bangham,” he said, “was bent on takin’ the poor devil back to Orleans, after all he’d gone through to get away. Well, he’s a brute, and we don’t expect nothin’ of brutes like him. But you’re a Boston merchant, Atkins, and callin’ yourself a Christian man, you put in your oar in this dirty business, and was goin’ to help Bangham. You thought I was goin’ to stand by and see you do it. No!” he thundered, with a tremendous slap of his right hand on the palm of his left, which made both the merchant and the captain start, “no! I wasn’t goin’ to stand by and see you do it! I’m an old sea-dog and my heart is tough and hard, but I’m damned if it’s hard enough to stand by when such a sin as that’s afoot, and never lend a hand to stop it. I took that man out of your clutches, you brace of pirates, and I set him adrift! You think I’m afraid to own it? No, I’m not, begod! I did it. Ephraim Jones is my name, and I come from Barnstable. There’s where I come from. I’m a Yankee sailor, and, so help me God, I could never see the bunting of my country flying at the peak again, if I let you two bloody Algerine thieves carry off that man to his murder. That’s all I’ve got to say. Take the law of me now, if you like. I won’t skulk. You’ll find me when you look for me. And if James Flatfoot don’t have his harpoon into both of you one of these days, then there’s no God, that’s all!”

Turning on his heel with this valediction, which consigned the merchant and the captain’s future beyond the grave to the Devil, who, under the name of James Flatfoot, occupies a prominent place in marine theology, Mr. Jones carelessly lounged out of the private room, leaving the glass door open, and with a nonchalant glance at the three or four startled clerks and book-keepers who sat and stood at their desks wondering what had been going on within, for they had only caught confused scraps of the stormy colloquy, he went down stairs, with a load off his mind which had been gathering there during the whole voyage of the Soliman.

For a moment after his departure, Mr. Atkins sat mute and still, feeling like one in a horrid dream. Roused presently by a deep-drawn breath from Captain Bangham, he wheeled his chair around to the desk, and taking out his white hankerchief, wiped away the cold sweat which had started out on his face and forehead.