A Signal Success

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A Signal Success  (1900) 
by R. Austin Freeman

Extracted from Everybody's magazine, Nov 1900, pp. 412–418. Accompanying illustrations by D. Chapel Hutchinson may be omitted.


By R. Austin Freeman


The men have come aft, sir, and they say they want to speak to you.”

“They want to speak to me, Mr. Jopling, do they?” said Captain Merriman in a tone of surprise. “Do you know what about?”

“I don’t, replied the first mate, “but by the look of them I should say there’s something brewing.”

Captain Merriman dropped the compasses on to the chart on which he had been working out his position, and strode out of his cabin and up the companionway, followed closely by the mate.

The men were gathered in a knot just by the break of the poop.

“Well, my lads,” he called out in a cheery, good-humored voice, “what is it that you have to say to me?”

Joe Salter, the boatswain, stepped forward a pace and cleared his throat.

“Why, d’ye see, Captain Merriman,” he said, “the thing’s like this here. We’ve been hearing a lot about Klondike and the fortunes that’s been made there by able-bodied workin’ men like us, and we’ve been a-thinkin’—in fact, the long and short of it is, we're going to Klondike ourselves.”

“Very well, men,” said the captain, “but it’s early days to talk of that matter, seeing that we are only four days out from Sydney; moreover, it is no business of mine where you go after you’re paid off, so long as you do your duty while you’re aboard.”

“But we ain’t a-going to wait till we’re paid off—we’re a-going now, on this here ship.”

“The deuce you are,” exclaimed the captain angrily. “I can tell you, my men, you'll have to settle with me first.”

“We're quite ready to settle with you, if you want us to,” replied Salter with a grin. “Here, boys, show him your teeth,” and, to the skipper’s amazement, every man, including the boatswain, whipped out a regulation navy revolver.

“You see,” said Salter, “we’re ready for anything that may turn up, and I may tell you that we’ve got all your firearms as well. And look you here, Captain Merriman,” he added, “you'd best keep a civil tongue. We're masters of this here vessel, and you’ve got to obey our orders.”

“You'd better think again, men,” the skipper said, regarding the men without a sign of irritation—“mutiny is a serious thing, and you have no excuse that I know of; you have good food and comfortable berths, haven’t you?”?

“Now you needn’t try to come round us, you know,” said Joe Salter, “with yer argiments. No, we ain’t a-makin’ no complaints, but wot we says and wot we sticks to is that we’re going to take charge of this here ship and we’re goin’ to employ you to navigate her for us.”

“And supposing I refuse?” asked the captain.

“Why, then overboard you goes, and we’ll employ Mr. Jopling instead; and if he refuses, overboard he goes and we tries Mr. Saunders; and if none of the mates won’t do as they are asked, we chucks em all overboard and works the bloomin’ ship ourselves.”

“What do you wish us to do, sir?” asked the first mate with a face like thunder.

“Well, Mr. Jopling,” replied the captain, “here are thirty men armed, and here are we four men unarmed. That is the situation, and I am afraid there is nothing for us but to accept it.”

“Spoken like a sensible man,” commented Salter jeeringly, and without another word the three mates descended on to the main deck and marched forward with the crew.

“What port is it you want to make for?” asked the captain of Salter, who had now stepped up on to the poop.

“The nearest port to Klondike,” answered the boatswain.

“That would be somewhere about Cross Sound, I suppose.”

“Very well, that will do; you can show it me on the chart presently. You will make direct for Cross Sound, and, when we’re a day’s easy sail off the land, let me know and I’ll tell you what to do next. And see here; if I catch you at any tricks, takin’ the ship into any other port or trying to make signals to any other vessel, you’re a dead man that very instant.”

Captain Merriman nodded, and passed down the companion-way.

That night Captain Merriman retired to his cabin at about half-past nine. Having lit a pipe, he reached down from his small book-shelf a leather-bound volume marked “International Code Signals,” and studied it attentively, making a few brief notes on a sheet of paper until, hearing a footstep on the companion stair, he hurriedly replaced the book, turned the paper over, and fixed a meditative gaze upon the tell-tale compass just over his head.


“Put up the helm there and keep her away a point or two. Ease off the lee braces and let her go free.”

It was Joe Salter who issued the above orders, notwithstanding that the captain was on deck and was nominally in command of the ship.

Captain Merriman walked to the taffrail and gazed intently at the horizon astern, but could distinguish nothing; as he turned, however, he perceived for the first time a man perched on the main yard looking in that direction, and presently Salter came aft, and, taking the telescope from the companion hatch, ascended into the mizzen top, where he stood observing some object on the weather quarter.

The captain again gazed in the direction in which the boatswain’s glass pointed, and presently his practised eye detected a minute gray speck.

He rapidly descended to his cabin, and in a few moments returned with his own glass, through which he examined the object on the horizon. Seen in the field of the telescope the gray speck resolved itself into a buff-painted funnel, from which no smoke issued, and the three masts of a bark with single top-sail yards and no sail set.

“Well, what do you make of her?” asked Salter sulkily.

“A cruiser under steam, I fancy,” replied the skipper.

“Englishman or foreigner?”

“English, I think.”

“So do I,” replied the boatswain; “and look here,” he continued, coming close to the captain, his revolver in his hand, “if she comes within speaking distance, you mind what I said. No tricks, or—” and he scowled significantly, and rolled away forward.

“Luff her up again,” bawled Salter some ten minutes later, “slack off the weather braces and look smart, my lads. That cruiser is end on again. And get in them stun’sails as quick as you can.”

As the ship luffed and presented her broadside to the cruiser, the latter also changed her course and made for a point well ahead of the “Patagonia.” This manoœvre was quickly observed by the knot of men who had gathered on the poop to watch the man-o’-war.

“She’s a-headin’ us off, Joe; she’ll be right aboard us presently,” said one of the hands to Salter. “What are you goin’ to do next?”

“Do?” repeated the boatswain irritably. “What can you do? If she wants to speak us she’ll have to, seeing that she’s doing sixteen knots to our eight.”

“No, that won’t do, Joe Salter,” retorted the other. “If any of her people board this here ship it means chokey for us, that’s wot it means. Ain’t that so, mates?” he continued, turning to the rest of the crew.

“Ay, that’s so,” was the rejoinder in a growling chorus.

“Well, what would you do, Bill Hurst?” asked the boatswain, turning to the first speaker defiantly.

“Why, I’d wear ship and show her our heels,” replied Hurst.

“And let her see as we’re a-running away from her,” sneered Salter.

“Bill Hurst’s right,” said another of the men. “We’d best wear right away,” and this statement was met by a chorus of approval.

“All right! Then wear ship, and be hanged to you!” exclaimed Salter, turning his back to his comrades.

Once more the helm was put up. As soon as this manœuvre was executed, all hands came aft and mounted the poop to watch the cruiser, Salter and the captain keeping her covered by their glasses.

“Hang me if she ain’t a-follerin’ us,” exclaimed the boatswain suddenly; and sure enough, the cruiser’s white hull rapidly shortened as she turned right into the “Patagonia’s” wake.

An expression of alarm soon made its appearance on the faces of the men, and their anxiety continued to increase in spite of the boatswain’s efforts to reassure them.

In half an hour the cruiser had reached a position about one mile away on the “Patagonia’s” starboard beam. The crew, ranged along the weather bulwark, watched the stranger for a time in silence.

“There she goes!” suddenly exclaimed Bill Hurst, as two tiny colored specks mounted to the cruiser’s peak.

“B, D.,”[1] commented the captain, putting down his telescope.

All right,” exclaimed Salter, turning insolently towards him; “nobody asked you to speak. I reckon every seaman knows what the red burgee and the blue pennant means, seein’ as they are always a-flyin’ from Lloyd’s stations all over the world. Now then, boys, where’s the flag-chest?”

“Why, it’s kep’ in the cap’n’s cabin,” said Fox, the steward.

“Well, then, get it up here, two of you, and look lively, or we'll have them sending a boat,” shouted the boatswain.

Several men scrambled in a hurry down the companion, and in a few seconds the chest was planted on the deck.

“What’s our number, you?” asked Salter of the captain.

“There’s the code-book in the chest,” replied the latter, “You can see for yourself,”

“Well, show us where it is,” said Salter, handling the book rather foolishly.

The captain opened the book at the list of ships’ names and gave it back to the boatswain. “There is the list,” he said, “you will find our name among the ‘p’s.’”

Salter drew a stumpy forefinger down the column of names commencing with “p.” “Ah, here we are,” he said at length, as his finger became stationary: “‘“Patagonia,” of London, 1,200 tons, official number 388641. M. P. W. G.’ Now, Hurst, you toggle the flags on to the halyards as I pass ’em to you. Here’s M,” and he fished the ball of bunting out of the compartment labelled “M” and passed it to Hurst—“here’s P, this here’s W, and there’s G. Up with ’em smartly.”

Hurst made fast the toggles, and then hauled briskly on the halyards, and the four balls of bunting mounted rapidly to the peak. A smart jerk on the halyards unrolled the four balls simultaneously, and the four brightly colored flags fluttered gayly against the blue sky. The cruiser’s signal was instantly lowered, and shortly afterwards a single colored speck was seen to rise to the masthead.

“There goes the answering pennant,” observed Salter with his eye to the glass. “Now they’ve got their answer, they can hook it as soon as they like. Down with them signals and let’s stow ’em away.”

“I say, Joe,” shouted Hurst excitedly, as he gazed intently at the man-o’-war, “she’s a-roundin’ to. S’help me if she ain’t a-headin’ straight for us.” He picked up the telescope and pointed it at the cruiser.

“Why, dash my eyes, if they ain’t a-lowerin’ a boat,” he exclaimed, turning to Salter.

The boatswain snatched the captain’s telescope from his hand and took a long look at the approaching vessel.

Salter, who had observed the knot of red-coated marines climbing into the boat, laid down his glass, and, discharging a volley of oaths and imprecations, strode up to the captain and shook a large and dirty fist in his face.

“You hound,” he screamed huskily, “I'll learn yer, I will.”

The precise character of the instruction he proposed to offer his commander did not appear, but the latter, having regarded him for a moment with a bland smile, turned to the crew, who were standing looking blank enough by the rail.

“Now listen to me, my lads,” he said, “and don’t be fooled any longer by that mutinous scoundrel——

His speech was brought to an abrupt end by a sounding smack on the face delivered by the infuriated boatswain; but before any one had time to realize what had happened, the skipper had adroitly executed what is known to pugilists as a left upper cut on the unlovely countenance of Mr. Salter, who staggered backwards across the deck until he brought up heavily against the binnacle, thereby knocking the breath out of his own body, and driving his elbow through the plate glass front of the instrument.

Captain Merriman was about to follow up the attack, when a rush was made at him and his arms were pinioned by several of the men. The boatswain picked himself up, and, drawing his revolver from his pocket, roared out in a voice mace husky with fury:

“Stand clear there, while I blow his cursed brains out!”

“Here, none o ’that, Joe Salter,” exclaimed Hurst, sternly. “The stone jug’s enough for us; we don’t want no running bowlines round our scrags, so you just stow it.”

“All right, Bill,” replied Salter, conciliatingly, returning his pistol to his pocket.

The captain was thereupon bundled forward and locked up in the forecastle, while the boatswain hurried down into the cabin.

In a few minutes the man-o’-war’s boat—a large launch—came alongside, and as the three officers who had come with her stepped on deck, the boatswain, rigged out in a coat and cap belonging to the captain, appeared at the break of the poop and descended to meet them.

Salter’s appearance was the signal for the outbreak of an epidemic of grins from the crew of the “Patagonia,” which his admonitory scowls and grimaces only served to increase.

“Could we see the captain?” asked the senior officer, a dry, brown-faced, little lieutenant, addressing Salter.

“Yer could,” replied the latter, “if yer was to cast yer eyes on me.”

“Oh!” responded the lieutenant, regarding Salter in undisguised astonishment, especially as to his shirt collar and his immense grubby paws.

“Why ‘Ho’?” inquired Salter, tartly, upon which the youngest officer, a lanky midshipman, retired to the bulwark and apparently suppressed a sneeze. “For what purpose might you have boarded my vessel?” persisted the boatswain. The lieutenant glanced at his companions with a puzzled expression, and after a short pause said:

“Our captain thought that perhaps you would be kind enough to allow us to compare our chronometers with yours.”

“Why, cert’nly,” replied Salter, “with pleasure. Where are they?”

“Where are what?” asked the astonished officer.

“Your chronometers. Have you got ’em with you?”

“Good Heavens, no!” replied the lieutenant, in a tone of amazement. “I’ve brought a hack watch, of course.”

“Oh! ah!” responded Salter, in no little confusion. “Well, come along below,” and he scuttled down the companion-way, cursing softly under his breath.

“Stay on deck, Woodburn,” said the lieutenant in an undertone to his junior, “and keep your weather eye lifting.”

“Rather,” responded the sub significantly, as the lieutenant and the midshipman followed Salter below.

“Now as to these here chronometers,” said the latter, slapping the instruments with his great paw, “which one will see first?’

“Whichever you please,” replied the lieutenant.

“Well, we’ll try this one, then,” said the boatswain, unfastening the hooks and endeavoring vainly to raise the lid of the case.

“The thing’s locked,” he muttered, turning crimson. “Here you, Fox.”

“Yes, sir,” said the steward, thrusting a scared face in at the cabin door with rather suspicious promptitude.

“Go and fetch the key of the chronometers.”

“Beg pardon, sir, but the keys is kept inside the cases,” said the steward hastily.

“But the cases are locked, you idiot. Go and fetch the keys, and look sharp.” Here the boatswain shook his fist and scowled frightfully, and the steward, suddenly comprehending, hurried away.

Barely two minutes had passed before this silence was broken by a confused noise from the deck, followed by the scuffling of feet on the companion stairs. As the footsteps reached the cabin door Salter leaped from his chair with a loud curse, and the officer turning round beheld Captain Merriman and the sub-lieutenant, closely attended by a sergeant of marines who carried and ostentatiously clinked a pair of handcuffs.

“How the deuce did you get them to run up that signal?” asked the lieutenant of Captain Merriman when the officers had the cabin to themselves.

“Well, I'll explain,” said Captain Merriman, cutting the end off a cigar and regarding the lieutenant with a twinkling eye. “The flag chest, which you may have noticed on deck, was always kept down here. Now, on the night when the mutiny broke out, after the lights were extinguished I had a brief interview with that flag chest, and ventured to make a few trifling alterations in its arrangement. Our number is M.P.W.G., and as it was almost certain that that signal would be made before any other I changed those particular flags. I took M out of its compartment and stuffed D in its place, P changed places with K, W with P, and G with R. Now when Salter got the flag chest on deck and asked me what signal to make and how to make it, I referred him to the code book, where he found our number without any difficulty. I was afraid he would notice the change in the flags, but he never unrolled them, and they remained in a ball until the halyards were jerked.

“Now Salter got the flags out of their compartments quite correctly, but of course when they went up, instead of making *M.P.W.G., “Patagonia,” of London, 1,200 tons, official number 388641,” they made ‘D.K.P.R., mutinied.’”

The midshipman fell back in his chair with a bellow of enjoyment as the skipper concluded his recital, while the grinning lieutenant remarked, “Well, Captain, I must say that you’ve salted their tails very nicely.”

  1. “What ship is that?”

This work is in the public domain in the United States because it was published before January 1, 1926.

The author died in 1943, so this work is also in the public domain in countries and areas where the copyright term is the author's life plus 75 years or less. This work may also be in the public domain in countries and areas with longer native copyright terms that apply the rule of the shorter term to foreign works.