Fletcher Thorson Wood
Astor House, Shanghai
Wednesday, 25 April, 1860, 10:00am
The Chinese war-steamer Confucius is now in port for repairs at the Shanghai Dock
Company in Hongkew. You are to go to that location without delay and present your
mate’s papers to Captain R. S. Ghent, who will examine your suitability for employment
with the fleet under his command.
Willard Harris Parrish for
W. L. G Shanks
U. S. Consul, Shanghai
Early in the afternoon after receiving word from the American consul to go aboard
Confucius, Fletcher Thorson Wood sat upon an upturned wooden barrel at one end of
the dock where the steamer was tied up behind the clipper ship Essex. He lit a cheroot
and considered the steamer, as had countless mates before him considered their new
berths. Here were the two vessels in his life on that day, the ship he was leaving behind,
so to speak, and the steamer to which he was going. Essex was the proud nymph
Galatea, her chariot drawn by dolphins across the shining sea – for whose present
abused and battered state he was at least partly responsible. The steamer astern was a
dark, brooding and unquiet Polyphemus. Its name was in large smoky-white letters over
the wood filigree grille of the wheel housing.
Repairs to Essex had progressed briskly. Chips was busy with saw, adze and mallet
replacing smashed planking shot away from the forecastle. The sailor’s bunks inside
were exposed to view like a rib cage of bison bones bleaching on the prairie. New
forecastle railing and ladders gleamed with fresh varnish, most of the forward house was
restored, and everywhere along the dock swirled the sharp odors of pine shavings,
shellac and turpentine. Gazing up at the graceful form of Essex, and sensing her majesty,
Fletcher felt a pang of regret when he saw how terribly she was hurt. He was a little
heartsick at the thought of parting from her beauty, the music of the wind whistling
through her shrouds and stays, the slap of her buntlines on canvas, her perfume of tar
and hemp, her quiet meditations. The other he was going to was short and stout, noisy
and dirty, but tempted him with offers of wealth and fame his first love could not match.
He would leave the one to the solace of her solitary tears, and go to the other who could
advance his career, in an ages-old marriage of convenience.
The carpenter waved and beckoned. Fletcher left his seabag on the dock and went
“How do you like her, Mr. Wood? Comin’ along right nice, wouldn’t you say.”
“Looks fine, Chips. You do good work.”
“Thankee, sir. Proud to hear you say so. Take a look around if you like.”
Fletcher slowly walked the length of her deck, observing that her broken bulwarks were
replaced and painted, and another kedge anchor was stashed behind the larboard
forecastle ladder. The musket balls and shell fragments dug out of her woodwork filled a
small cracker barrel left sitting at the poop rail, and the wounds had been closed with
white wood putty and awaited only paint and lacquer to remove the last of the blemishes
from her mahogany complexion. Fletcher went to the stern and leaned on the tafferel, lit
another cheroot, and returned to his study of the sulking Polyphemus that was to be his
This hulk was a wooden American-model side-paddle river steamer, with a low black
hull, one deck, a long house amidships, and spindly masts fore and aft. Her burden might
be around 460 tons, but he could not recall directly because, being Chinese now, the
North China Herald no longer reported her in shipping lists. She looked to be 150 or
160 feet long, maybe forty feet shorter than Essex. Her beam width was about twenty-
five feet, and Fletcher guessed she drew eight or nine feet of water unladen. Atop the
house, forward of the smokestack, was a white-trimmed wheelhouse with large glass
windows and armor of wrought-iron plate that dropped down over the glass. Her huge
side-paddle housings were so far astern that she looked as if, with good head of steam,
she could lift her bow up out of the water and howl at the moon.
A forty-foot tall black bullet-riddled smokestack thrust high into the air above her house.
The stack was secured by five forestays running to bulwarks and eight backstays made
fast aft, and still looked like it was about to fall over. Partly obscured behind the stack
stood a twenty-foot high ironbound wooden A-frame on which balanced the steam
engine’s eighteen-foot walking beam, an open frame of wrought iron shaped like a squat
diamond that reminded Fletcher of a gallows. Her bow stem was a serious piece of
work. Thick plates of iron on each side of the stem, riveted together in a sharp edge,
covered the stem from below the waterline up to the blunt bowsprit.
That pretty Polly’s for ramming junks.
Her bowchaser was a 32-pounder howitzer mounted on a pivot carriage behind a
bulwark of foot-thick teakwood planking standing three feet above her iron bulwark. The
foremast was square-rigged, with yards for a mainsail and a topsail, but without the
rigging needed to support the highest part of the mast, the foretopmast. The mizzenmast
aft of the wheel housings was fore-and-aft rigged, with an unusually long spanker gaff
rigged more as a hoist to extend out over the paddle-wheel housings and cargo hold. A
flapping canvas awning partly sheltered the aft portion of the poop deck.
Awning can be struck after tea and crumpets are served and more working room is
needed. The silly masts’re just a damn nuisance – they’d have to be housed then
stepped every time she wants to pass through a water gate. And she’ll never set a topsail.
Spanker gaff and boom probably never saw sail set either. Not at all a pretty prospect –
more like a skinny old maid schoolmarm.
But Fletcher had warmed to her enough to regard the steamer as a “she,” a very distant
in-law, a poor cousin, of clipper ships. Her boilers were still being blown out with steam,
and the rhythm of some steam pump deep in her hold made her sound like she was
quietly breathing sss-chunk…sss-chunk…sss-chunk. To the superstitious Chinese on the
dock, the fire-wheel-boat was a thing alive and of awesome power and grandeur, a water
dragon to be propitiated by offerings.
Suddenly the water dragon spoke: whoosh! A cloud of white steam billowed up out of
her stack and Chinese on the dock jumped back. Even a Chinese oiler who helped
dismantle and reassemble her cylinder and piston eyed her circumspectly.
Fletcher only grinned and thought whoosh! to you too, you old smudge pot.
The likeness of a man emerged from the wheelhouse, descended the ladder, and
clumped forward to the rail. He was of medium height, with a dark complexion, and as
fat as an alderman, but he moved with assurance, even authority, in spite of favoring his
right leg. He was rigged in dark trousers under a dark-blue double-breasted jacket cut
like a naval uniform with dingy gold epaulets and tarnished gold buttons. His
pockmarked face was sun-bronzed and streaked with soot, and a meerschaum pipe
formerly of white clay, now nearly black, dangled from beneath his heavy gray
mustache. He stopped at the rail and glowered down into the space between the two
vessels, then glanced up to the stern of Essex and saw the stranger staring down at him.
“Top ‘o the day to ye, Admiral,” Fletcher said.
The man shot Fletcher a purser’s grin – a sneer. “So, now they put the figureheads of
jackasses at the stern of sailing ships?”
Fletcher grinned like a jackass eating briars. Now here’s a squally master, he thought, as
hard as a twice-baked biscuit.
“We can’t all boast ‘owitzers for figure’eads, can we Admiral?”
For a long moment, the apparition stared hard at Fletcher, wrinkling his moustache as
though he had found something unpalatable in his soup. Fletcher stood up straight and
folded his arms across his chest so that his measure might be better taken.
Can’t tell from the way a cat looks, he thought, how far he can jump. If this biting old
grumbler doesn’t help Vulcan forge thunderbolts in the furnace of his boiler room like
the Cyclops, he could be a tolerable old splicer.
“Why don’t you stop posturing like you was a simple-minded sailor, Mr. Whats-your-
name, and come aboard like you was told to by your consul?”
Fletcher settled on a high stool in the wheelhouse, recalling the parting shot of the Essex
carpenter. “Are ye goin’ aboard that steamer, Mr. Wood?” he had asked and, when
Fletcher said he was considering the prospect, the carpenter replied, “Steam boat’s no
place for a deep-water sailor, Mr. Wood. Muckin’ about in all that noise and black soot.
I’ve knowed it to ruin many fine sailors and good men, sir, and I shorely hope it does
not do the same thing to you. Evening, sir.”
After that Fletcher could not shake the vision of Elijah on the dock at Nantucket waving
a bony finger at the Pequod and intimating premonitions of a terrible fate for any who
sailed with that suffering old Captain Ahab.
In a chair opposite sat the master of Confucius, Captain R. S. Ghent. He had two sound
legs, two sharp eyes, hazel in color, and dark wavy hair. He appeared to be in his mid-
forties. Fletcher reproached himself for allowing harpies of outlandish allusion to drag his
own good common sense overboard, and for giving the good captain less than the benefit
of some reasonable doubt. Comes of reading too damn many books. Overboard with
your tattered Bullfinch!
“The American consul recommends I take you aboard as a mate,” Ghent said. His voice
was low and rough, like a saw cutting wood, and he often coughed to clear his throat.
“You’re not the first rum-soaked derelict foisted off on me by Uncle Sam, and if Bill
Shanks’ judgement isn’t any better than before, you might just find yourself rolling out
with the next tide. Now who the hell are you?”
“Mate on Captain Lynch’s Antelope back in fifty-eight.”
Ghent looked up at him with tamped-down surprise, then slowly packed tobacco into his
pipe and put a flaming lucifer match to the bowl. He looked at Wood again. “Where was
you ‘bout June and July of that year?”
“On the Peiho, ferrying diplomats and interpreters to Tientsin.”
“Why did you leave that berth, and when?”
“Went back to New York about January of fifty-nine, took a position in my father’s
trading firm, to learn a little more about the workings of the home office. No, I was not
forced to flee for killing anyone, least of all any steamer captains.”
The yellow flare of another lucifer match was reflected in Ghent’s eyes. Fletcher
watched him struggle to keep his pipe lit.
“Antelope?” Ghent said. “Maybe I remember something about a mate. Can’t be on this
coast long and not be known. It’s a small community, mostly of inbred English and
French retards. Lynch maybe mentioned a mate some time back then, impressed how
nothing ever seemed to rile the man.”
“Not musket balls nor sudden shoals, not mutinous crews nor rebel gongs and
firecrackers. Captain Lynch was not a man to flinch when there was a fight.”
Ghent looked up angrily, opened his mouth to respond, then held his counsel. He stood
up, crossed to the wheel, and stared out the window at the stern of the clipper. “What
was you doing aboard that goddamn sailboat?” he muttered into the glass.
“Came up in her from Hong Kong. She was damaged in the Volcanos, and I wanted to
see her repairs.” Fletcher began to wonder if Ghent had not just flinched. That was a
harmless enough remark about old Lynch, he thought, to have touched a raw nerve.
“You’re one of those deep-water sailors, aren’t you, from those big old square-riggers.
The kind of sailor that hates steamships and treats sailing ships like living, breathing
goddesses of the ocean, worships all the arcana of winds and weather and canvas and
ropes, who can’t pass a steamship at sea without sneering like some posh passing an
Ghent whirled about and rested his back against the wheel, as if leaning on his steamer
for support. “I’ve carried your kind of mate before and put up with their arrogance until
I could taste gall and then kicked ‘em back on shore. Steamer duty’s not so glamorous
as sailing ships. You get your hands dirty. Hell, you get dirty all over and you stay that
way, because you work hard with the machinery. Over there on that ship, you’re a
carpenter and a sailmaker, trades nice ‘n clean and sweet-smelling, but over here you’re
just a grimy machinist.”
“And a painter, pipefitter, rifleman and artilleryman. Sure, Captain, I’ve been on
quarterdecks, but I’ve spent time in wheelhouses too, and you might make a mistake by
dismissing me too easily” or by measuring your pecker by my bushel, old man.
Fletcher jumped down from the stool and planted himself before the captain. Ghent
startled and leaned forward slightly into a fighting stance.
“It’s just an accident of fate,” Fletcher said, suppressing his anger, “that consul
intervened. Just as likely, I’d’ve been blown down here to the docks looking about for a
river steamer on my own account. Because it suits me, and not some worn-out wreck of
a civil servant. I only agreed to the consul’s proposal because it did suit me. If I knew
the consul’s name would be no recommendation here, I’d’ve looked elsewhere.”
“I suppose,” Ghent said, “that clinking noise I heard when you came up the gangway
was your brass balls?”
Wood and Ghent bristled with rage, each wishing the other would just so much as raise a
hand. For a moment, anything could have happened, but Fletcher remembered his
precarious situation, willed himself to relax, and shifted his gaze out into the harbor.
Ghent glared at his profile and wanted to crush Fletcher’s jaw. Had anyone else been
present, the outcome would have been different, but Ghent recognized he’d been yielded
right-of-way, however grudgingly, and could give way without noticeable loss of face.
“Sit down, and tell me why the hell you are back in China.”
The captain seemed to relent when confronted with commensurate mulishness, or
maybe he got an inkling of Fletcher about to refuse the commission. Fletcher wondered
if Ghent was desperate for a mate. Should’ve asked around more at the sailor’s home
about this crank, depended less on the marshal’s testimony. If he wants to match wills in
the wheelhouse, I learned long ago how to play that game. The real test comes later.
“I am looking for a berth suited to my talents and experience, maybe one where brass
balls are indispensable. Events in China are poised for change, the country’s being forced
open to trade, great opportunities are just ahead, and I want to be there at the brink
when they come. I don’t promise to be a mate on your vessels very long, but while I am
you can expect a good job done without shirking. I’m just as hard a man to shave at
steaming as I am at sailing.”
“My last mate was shot dead.”
“Bad luck. Respect to the dead. Maybe he was looking the wrong way.”
Ghent tamped the tobacco in his pipe with the head of a large nail, then struck another
match and put it to the stuff. Swirls of sweet-smelling blue smoke enveloped Fletcher.
Ghent picked up Fletcher’s packet of sailing papers, looked them over again, and handed
“This’s not an easy crew to handle. Half’s Chinese, the other half’s Manilamen. Tough
as this nail. You have to be tougher or they’ll flay you alive. That’s the only kind of man
can survive in this line of work. It’s a very thin line between the hunters and the hunted.
Lynch’s boat is a pampered mail packet compared to Confucius. You show any
weakness, and you’ll find your guts strung out for fish bait in our wake.”
“I’m not exactly a cloister-educated celibate. I’ve seen tough crews.”
“That mate, he was killed by the crew. I can’t prove it, or who, but there was black
powder all around the hole in his face. He wasn’t shot from very far away.”
“Mate must not have been worth a Bungtown copper.”
“Oh, he was a bully mate, all right, right out of a dime-novel. Then right away, he lost
his ballast, fell out with the Manilamen, ran about kicking and screaming, never gave the
crew a moment’s peace. I was going to trade him in for a rabid bulldog when we got
back, but he drew the hanged man before we made port.”
“How long was he aboard?”
“You’re still kicking.”
“That’s because I respect Manilamen and their ways. Oh, I’m a tough sonofabitch all
right – they find that out first, but I give them leeway and don’t come down on ‘em hard
‘cepting as I have a damn good reason. Like a good horse or dog, ill treatment can wear
on them, until their spirit dies and they become cringing, worthless curs. Treated
properly, they’re good fighters, without fear, fierce and hardened mountain men. Loyal
to the death, if you can win their loyalty. If you can’t, you’re finished.”
Fletcher began to feel like he had the man’s measure. Ghent did not want to fight,
maybe not again, maybe never before. He relied on the ferocity of his crew, and a good
mate, to keep up the appearances that baffled his Chinese backers. It was just a guess,
of course. The real test always came under fire.
“Then I shall follow your example, Captain, and give them respect but, at the same time,
I shall be ha’d enough to give them reason to respect me.”
Ghent’s face relaxed. A moment later he said: “All right, you can have the berth as mate.
Here, on Confucius. I’d inquire about you with Captain Lynch, but he went to Macao
with Antelope when Russell auctioned her off to Fernandes. He ever turns up again in
Shanghai, we can pay him a curtsy call – if you’re still aboard. You appear ready to
start, so let’s look her over. Black gang’s below, with a Chinese assistant engineer.
Crew’s not, won’t be for another day or two, but you can get the layout now.”
“What’s the pay?”
“Berth pays 75 taels a month, $120.00 US.”
Fletcher said nothing. Ghent’s eyes narrowed.
“That’s the same as my engineer, and a third more than the 2nd mate. Engineer and first
mate’re paid top dollar aboard Confucius. Hell, everybody is. Even a Chinese AB gets
more than a Chinese army officer.”
“I’d guess a Chinese sailor takes more risk aboard your boat.”
“Look here, Wood. $120.00 US isn’t just pocket change. That’s $1440.00 a year, if
you’re here that long. Maybe less than a worn-out wreck of an American consul, but
more than his clerk or interpreter. Beats $30.00 a month for mate’s berth on a sailing
ship. You won’t get rich drawing pay, but it more than enough for anything you want in
Shanghai. Wine, women, song – what’s yer poison?”
“Pay’s first chop, Cap’n.” About the same as Antelope, for the same work. Won’t draw
pay all that long anyway.
At the door to the wheelhouse, Ghent stopped and turned a baleful eye on Fletcher.
“One more thing. You are to address me as captain, or sir, but never again as admiral.”