The Mystery by S. E. White and S. H. Adams - HTML preview
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I had every reason to be satisfied with my disguise,--if such it could be called. Captain Selover at first failed to recognise me. Then he burst into his shrill cackle.
"Didn't know you," he trebled.
"But you look shipshape. Come, I'll show you your quarters."
Immediately I discovered what I had suspected before; that on so small a schooner the mate took rank with the men rather than the afterguard. Cabin accommodations were of course very limited. My own lurked in the waist of the ship--a tiny little airless hole.
"Here's where Johnson stayed," proffered Selover.
"You can bunk here, or you can go in the foc'sle with the men. They's more room there. We'll get under way with the turn of the tide."
He left me. I examined the cabin. It was just a trifle larger than its single berth, and the berth was just a trifle larger than myself. My chest would have to be left outside. I strongly suspected that my lungs would have to be left outside also; for the life of me I could not see where the air was to come from. With a mental reservation in favour of investigating the forecastle, I went on deck.
The Laughing Lass was one of the prettiest little schooners I ever saw. Were it not for the lines of her bilges and the internal arrangement of her hold, it might be imagined she had been built originally as a pleasure yacht. Even the rake of her masts, a little forward of the plumb, bore out this impression, which a comparatively new suit of canvas, well stopped down, brass stanchions forward, and two little guns under tarpaulins, almost confirmed. One thing struck me as peculiar. Her complement of boats was ample enough. She had two surf boats, a dingy, and a dory slung to the davits. In addition another dory,-the one you picked me up in--was lashed to the top of the deck house.
"They'd mighty near have a boat apiece," I thought, and went forward.
Just outside the forecastle hatch I paused. Someone below was singing in a voice singularly rich in quality. The words and the quaintness of the minor air struck me immensely and have clung to my memory like a burr ever since.
"'Are you a man-o'-war or a privateer,' said he.
Blow high, blow low, what care we!
'Oh, I am a jolly pirate, and I'm sailing for my fee.'
Down on the coast of the high Barbare-e-e."
I stepped to the companion. The voice at once ceased. I descended.
A glimmer of late afternoon struggled through the deadlights. I found myself in a really commodious space,--extending far back of where the forward bulk-heads are usually placed,--accommodating rows and row of bunks--eighteen of them, in fact. The unlighted lamp cast its shadow on wood stained black by much use, but polished like ebony from the continued friction of men's garments. I wish I could convey to you the uncanny effect, this--of dropping from the decks of a miniature craft to the internal arrangements of a square-rigged ship. It was as though, entering a cottage door, you were to discover yourself on the floor of Madison Square Garden. A fresh sweet breeze of evening sucked down the hatch. I immediately decided on the forecastle. Already it was being borne in on me that I was little more than a glorified bo's'n's mate. The situation suited me, however. It enabled me to watch the course of events more safely, less exposed to the danger of recognition. I stood for a moment at the foot of the companion accustoming my eyes to the gloom. After a moment, with a shock of surprise, I made out a shining pair of bead-points gazing at me unblinkingly from the shadow under the bitts. Slowly the man defined himself, as a shape takes form in a fog. He was leaning forward in an attitude of attention, his elbows resting on his knees, his forearms depending between them, his head thrust out. I could detect no faintest movement of eyelash, no faintest sound of breathing. The stillness was portentous. The creature was exactly like a wax figure, one of the sort you meet in corridors of cheap museums and for a moment mistake for living beings. Almost I thought to make out the customary grey dust lying on the wax of his features.
I am going to tell you more of this man, because, as you shall see, he was destined to have much to do with my life, the fate of Dr. Karl Augustus Schermerhorn, and the doom of the Laughing Lass.
He wore on his head a red bandana handkerchief. I never saw him with other covering. From beneath It straggled oily and tangled locks of glossy black. His face was long, narrow, hook-nosed and sinister; his eyes, as I have described them, a steady and beady black. I could at first glance ascribe great activity, but only moderate strength to his slender, wiry figure. In this I was mistaken. His sheer physical power was second only to that of Captain Selover. One of his forearms ended in a steel hook. At the moment I could not understand this; could not see how a man so maimed could be useful aboard a ship. Later I wished we had more as handy. He knew a jam hitch which he caught over and under his hook quicker than most men can grasp a line with the naked hand. It would render one way, but held fast the other. He told me it was a cinch-hook hitch employed by mule packers in the mountains, and that he had used it on swamp-hooks in the lumber woods of Michigan. I shouldn't wonder. He was a Wandering Jew.--His name was Anderson, but I never heard him called that. It was always "Handy Solomon" with men and masters.
We stared at each other, I fascinated by something, some spell of the ship, which I have never been able to explain to myself--nor even describe. It was a mystery, a portent, a premonition such as overtakes a man sometimes in the dark passageways of life. I cannot tell you of it, nor make you believe--let it pass----
Then by a slow process of successive perceptions I became aware that I was watched by other eyes, other wax figures, other human beings with unwavering gaze. They seemed to the sense of mystic apprehension that for the moment held possession of me, to be everywhere--in the bunks, on the floor, back in the shadows, watching, watching, watching from the advantage of another world.
I don't know why I tell you this; why I lay so much stress on the first weird impression I got of the forecastle. It means something to me now--in view of all that happened subsequently. Almost can I look back and see, in that moment of occultism, a warning, an enlightenment----But the point is, it meant something to me then. I stood there fascinated, unable to move, unable to speak. Then the grotesque figure in the corner stirred.
"Well, mates," said the man, "believe or not believe, it's in the book, and it stands to reason, too. We have gold mines here in Californy and Nevada and all them States; and we hear of gold mines in Mexico and Australia, too, but did you ever hear tell of gold mines in Europe? Tell me that! And where did the gold come from then, before they discovered America? Tell me that! Why they made it, just as the man that wrote this-here says, and you can kiss the Book on that."
"How about that place, Ophir, I read about?" asked a voice from the bunks.
The man shot a keen glance thither from beneath his brows.
"Know last year's output from the mines of Ophir, Thrackles?" he inquired in silky tones.
"Why, no," stammered the man addressed as Thrackles.
"Well I do," pursued the man with the steel hook, "and it's just the whole of nothing, and you can kiss the Book on that too! There ain't any gold output, because there ain't any mines, and there never have been. They made their gold."
He tossed aside a book he had been holding in his left hand. I recognised the fat little paper duodecimo with amusement, and some wonder. The only other copy I had ever laid my eyes on is in the Astor Library. It is somewhat of a rarity, called The Secret of Alchemy, or the Grand Doctrine of Transmutation Fully Explained, and was written by a Dr. Edward Duvall,--a most extraordinary volume to have fallen into the hands of seamen.
I stepped forward, greeting and being greeted. Besides the man I have mentioned they were four. The cook was a bullet-headed squat negro with a broken nose. I believe he had a name,--Robinson, or something of that sort. He was to all of us, simply the Nigger. Unlike most of his race, he was gloomy and taciturn.
Of the other two, a little white-faced, thin-chested youth named Pulz, and a villainouslooking Mexican called Perdosa, I shall have more to say later.
My arrival broke the talk on alchemy. It resumed its course in the direction of our voyage. Each discovered that the others knew nothing; and each blundered against the astounding fact of double wages.
"All I know is the pay's good; and that's enough," concluded Thrackles, from a bunk.
"The pay's too good," growled Handy Solomon.
"This ain't no job to go look at the 'clipse of the moon, or the devil's a preacher!"
"W'at you maik heem, den?" queried Perdosa.
"It's treasure, of course," said Handy Solomon shortly.
"He, he, he!" laughed the negro, without mirth.
"What's the matter with you, Doctor?" demanded Thrackles.
"Treasure!" repeated the Nigger.
"You see dat box he done carry so cairful? You see dat?"
A pause ensued. Somebody scratched a match and lit a pipe.
"No, I don't see that!" broke out Thrackles finally, with some impatience.
"I sabe how a man goes after treasure with a box; but why should he take treasure away in a box? What do you think, Bucko?" he suddenly appealed to me.
I looked up from my investigation of the empty berths.
"I don't think much about it," I replied, "except that by the look of the stores we're due for more than Honolulu; and from the look of the light we'd better turn to on deck."
An embarrassed pause fell.
"Who are you, anyway?" bluntly demanded the man with the steel hook.
"My name is Eagen," I replied; "I've the berth of mate. Which of these bunks are empty?"
They indicated what I desired with just a trace of sullenness. I understood well enough their resentment at having a ship's officer quartered on them,--the forec'stle they considered as their only liberty when at sea, and my presence as a curtailment to the freedom of speech. I subsequently did my best to overcome this feeling, but never quite succeeded.
At my command the Nigger went to his galley, I ascended to the deck. Dusk was falling, in the swift Californian fashion. Already the outlines of the wharf houses were growing indistinct, and the lights of the city were beginning to twinkle. Captain Selover came to my side and leaned over the rail, peering critically at the black water against the piles.
"She's at the flood," he squeaked.
"And here comes the Lucy Belle." The tug took us in charge and puffed with us down the harbour and through the Golden Gate. We had sweated the canvas on her, even to the flying jib and a huge club topsail she sometimes carried at the main, for the afternoon trades had lost their strength. About midnight we drew up on the Farallones.
The schooner handled well. Our crew was divided into three watches--an unusual arrangement, but comfortable. Two men could sail her handily in most sorts of weather. Handy Solomon had the wheel. Otherwise the deck was empty. The man's fantastic headgear, the fringe of his curling oily locks, the hawk outline of his face momentarily silhouetted against the phosphorescence astern as he glanced to windward, all lent him an appearance of another day. I could almost imagine I caught the gleam of silver-butted horse pistols and cutlasses at his waist.
I brooded in wonder at what I had seen and how little I had explained. The number of boats, sufficient for a craft of three times the tonnage; the capacity of the forec'stle with its eighteen bunks, enough for a passenger ship,--what did it mean? And this wild, unkempt, villainous crew with its master and his almost ridiculous contrast of neatness and filth;--did Dr. Schermerhorn realise to what he had trusted himself and his precious expedition, whatever it might be?
The lights of shore had sunk; the Laughing Lass staggered and leaped joyously with the glory of the open sea. She seemed alone on the bosom of the ocean; and for the life of me I could not but feel that I was embarked on some desperate adventure. The notion was utterly illogical; that I knew well. In sober thought, I, a reporter, was shadowing a respectable and venerable scientist, who in turn was probably about to investigate at length some little-known deep-sea conditions or phenomena of an unexplored island. But that did not suffice to my imagination. The ship, its surroundings, its equipment, its crew -all read fantastic. So much the better story, I thought, shrugging my shoulders at last.