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9. The Return of the Straggler
Before I turned in that evening I had done some good hours' work in the engine-room.
The boat was oil-fired, and in very fair order, so my duties did not look as if they would
be heavy. There was nobody who could be properly called an engineer; only, besides
the furnace-men, a couple of lads from Hamburg who had been a year ago apprentices
in a ship-building yard. They were civil fellows, both of them consumptive, who did what
I told them and said little. By bedtime, if you had seen me in my blue jumper, a pair of
carpet slippers, and a flat cap - all the property of the deceased Walter - you would have
sworn I had been bred to the firing of river-boats, whereas I had acquired most of my
knowledge on one run down the Zambesi, when the proper engineer got drunk and fell
overboard among the crocodiles.
The captain - they called him Schenk - was out of his bearings in the job. He was a
Frisian and a first-class deep-water seaman, but, since he knew the Rhine delta, and
because the German mercantile marine was laid on the ice till the end of war, they had
turned him on to this show. He was bored by the business, and didn't understand it very
well. The river charts puzzled him, and though it was pretty plain going for hundreds of
miles, yet he was in a perpetual fidget about the pilotage. You could see that he would
have been far more in his element smelling his way through the shoals of the Ems
mouth, or beating against a northeaster in the shallow Baltic. He had six barges in tow,
but the heavy flood of the Danube made it an easy job except when it came to going
slow. There were two men on each barge, who came aboard every morning to draw
rations. That was a funny business, for we never lay to if we could help it. There was a
dinghy belonging to each barge, and the men used to row to the next and get a lift in
that barge's dinghy, and so forth. Six men would appear in the dinghy of the barge
nearest us and carry off supplies for the rest. The men were mostly Frisians, slow-
spoken, sandy-haired lads, very like the breed you strike on the Essex coast.
It was the fact that Schenk was really a deep-water sailor, and so a novice to the job,
that made me get on with him. He was a good fellow and quite willing to take a hint, so
before I had been twenty- four hours on board he was telling me all his difficulties, and I
was doing my best to cheer him. And difficulties came thick, because the next night was
New Year's Eve.
I knew that that night was a season of gaiety in Scotland, but Scotland wasn't in it with
the Fatherland. Even Schenk, though he was in charge of valuable stores and was
voyaging against time, was quite clear that the men must have permission for some
kind of beano. Just before darkness we came abreast a fair-sized town, whose name I
never discovered, and decided to lie to for the night. The arrangement was that one
man should be left on guard in each barge, and the other get four hours' leave ashore.
Then he would return and relieve his friend, who should proceed to do the same thing. I
foresaw that there would be some fun when the first batch returned, but I did not dare to
protest. I was desperately anxious to get past the Austrian frontier, for I had a half-