A writer takes passage on Captain Shreve’s ship because he’s heard that he once knew the late”King” Waldon. He wants to write a book on the man who, with his wife alone, sailed in an open boat to Samoa to lead the life of a trader. The writer thinks very highly of his ability to capture a full person or place with the scantest information. Indeed, he praises himself in such a constant stream, it isn’t clear he cares to hear anyone else. It’s only stemmed when a coal hulk nears that catches Shreve’s eye. The writer can’t see anything in the broken down thing, but Shreve is ready to spin a tale.
The hulk was once a clipper ship, the Golden Bough. Shreve, then nineteen, had just been made an able seaman and wanted to sign with the toughest ship afloat and there was no bloodier ship than the Golden Bough. The rest of the crew had to be shanghaied. Only one other man signed up willing, Newman. Captain Swope seems to have seen a ghost when he lays eyes on Newman. He stays in his cabin and forbids his wife Mary from going among the men and tending to their wounds. There are wounds: the mates keep the crew cowed into submission by brutal, sometimes fatal beatings.
To cut a long story short, Swope had framed Newman (or Roy Waldon, to use his real name) with infidelity to break apart him and Mary. He then married Mary for her father’s money. Swope then killed Beulah — the supposed other woman — and Mary’s father, framing Newman for both crimes. Newman has escaped from prison with revenge in mind, but Mary convinces him to maintain the peace. A mutiny would mean his death and much of the crew’s and nothing would change. Swope, however, wants a mutiny. It would give him a perfect excuse to kill Newman, Mary, and one of the mates who has grown too dangerous.
Newman, Shreve, and Holy Joe — a shanghaied preacher — keep the peace as long as they can. Conditions, at last, leave no other option, and with Newman in chains in the hold, there’s no one to hold the crew back. Shreve, Mary, and Wong — the cook — have secretly been cutting into the hold and rescue Newman. Newman appears on deck just as the crew is advancing on the cabin and commands them to stop. Swope, his plot unraveling, attempts to shoot Mary in full view of everyone. Newman lifts Swope and throws him to the deck, snapping his spine. Lynch, the mate marked for death, assumes command of the ship. Holy Joe marries Newman and Mary on the deck. Lynch has launched the dinghy and filled it with supplies. With his help, Newman and Mary depart, with directions for reaching nearby Samoa. When the ship arrives in Hong Kong, there was no mutiny and the two are simply unaccounted for.
We never return to the writer, but I like to think he wasn’t paying attention, seeing no romance in a dingy old coal hulk.