The Mystery by S. E. White and S. H. Adams - HTML preview

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The Corrosive


That evening I smoked in a splendid isolation while the men whispered apart. I had nothing to do but smoke, and to chew my cud, which was bitter. There could be no doubt, however I may have saved my face, that command had been taken from me by that rascal, Handy Solomon. I was in two minds as to whether or not I should attempt to warn Darrow or the doctor. Yet what could I say? and against whom should I warn them? The men had grumbled, as men always do grumble in idleness, and had perhaps talked a little wildly; but that was nothing.

The only indisputable fact I could adduce was that I had allowed my authority to slip through my fingers. And adequately to excuse that, I should have to confess that I was a writer and no handler of men.

I abandoned the unpleasant train of thought with a snort of disgust, but it had led me to another. In the joy and uncertainty of living I had practically lost sight of the reason for my coming. With me it had always been more the adventure than the story; my writing was a by-product, a utilisation of what life offered me. I had set sail possessed by the sole idea of ferreting out Dr. Schermerhorn's investigations, but the gradual development of affairs had ended by absorbing my every faculty. Now, cast into an eddy by my change of fortunes, the original idea regained its force. I was out of the active government of affairs, with leisure on my hands, and my thoughts naturally turned with curiosity again to the laboratory in the valley.

Darrow's "devil fires" were again painting the sky. I had noticed them from time to time, always with increasing wonder. The men accepted them easily as only one of the unexplained phenomena of a sailor's experience, but I had not as yet hit on a hypothesis that suited me. They were not allied to the aurora; they differed radically from the ordinary volcanic emanations; and scarcely resembled any electrical displays I had ever seen. The night was cool; the stars bright: I resolved to investigate.

 Without further delay I arose to my feet and set off into the darkness. Immediately one of the group detached himself from the fire and joined me.

 "Going for a little walk, sir?" asked Handy Solomon sweetly.

"That's quite right and proper. Nothin' like a little walk to get you fit and right for your bunk."

He held close to my elbow. We got just as far as the stockade in the bed of the arroyo. The lights we could make out now across the zenith; but owing to the precipitance of the cliffs, and the rise of the arroyo bed, it was impossible to see more. Handy Solomon felt the defences carefully.

"A man would think, sir, it was a cannibal island," he observed.

"All so tight and tidy-like here. It would take a ship's guns to batter her down. A man might dig under these here two gate logs, if no one was against him. Like to try it, sir?"

 "No," I answered gruffly.

From that time on I was virtually a prisoner; yet so carefully was my surveillance accomplished that I could place my finger on nothing definite. Someone always accompanied me on my walks; and in the evening I was herded as closely as any cattle.

 Handy Solomon took the direction of affairs off my hands. You may be sure he set no very heavy tasks. The men cut a little wood, carried up a few pails of water--that was all.

Lacking incentive to stir about, they came to spend most of their time lying on their backs watching the sky. This in turn bred a languor which is the sickest, most soul- and temperdestroying affair invented by the devil. They could not muster up energy enough to walk down the beach and back, and yet they were wearied to death of the inaction. After a little they became irritable toward one another. Each suspected the other of doing less than he should. You who know men will realise what this meant.

The atmosphere of our camp became surly. I recognised the precursor of its becoming dangerous. One day on a walk in the hills I came on Thrackles and Pulz lying on their stomachs gazing down fixedly at Dr. Schermerhorn's camp. This was nothing extraordinary, but they started guiltily to their feet when they saw me, and made off, growling under their breaths.

All this that I have told you so briefly, took time. It was the eating through of men's spirits by that worst of corrosives, idleness. I conceive it unnecessary to weary you with the details---

The situation was as yet uneasy but not alarming. One evening I overheard the beginning of an absurd plot to gain entrance to the Valley--that was as far as detail went. I became convinced at last that I should in some way warn Percy Darrow.

That seems a simple enough proposition, does it not? But if you will stop to think one moment of the difficulties of my position, you will see that it was not as easy as at first it appears. Darrow still visited us in the evening. The men never allowed me even the chance of private communication while he was with us. One or two took pains to stretch out between us. Twice I arose when the assistant did, resolved to accompany him part way back. Both times men resolutely escorted us, and as resolutely separated us from the opportunity of a single word apart. The crew never threatened me by word or look. But we understood each other.

I was not permitted to row out to the Laughing Lass without escort. Therefore I never attempted to visit her again. The men were not anxious to do so, their awe of the captain made them only too glad to escape his notice. That empty shell of a past reputation was my only hope. It shielded the arms and ammunition.

As I look back on it now, the period seems to me to be one of merely potential trouble. The men had not taken the pains to crystallise their ideas. I really think their compelling emotion was that of curiosity. They wanted to see. It needed a definite impulse to change that desire to one of greed.

 The impulse came from Percy Darrow and his idle talk of voodoos. As usual he was directing his remarks to the sullen Nigger.

"Voodoos?" he said.

"Of course there are. Don't fool yourself for a minute on that. There are good ones and bad ones. You can tame them if you know how, and they will do anything you want them to." Pulz chuckled in his throat.

"You don't believe it?" drawled the assistant turning to him.

"Well, it's so. You know that heavy box we are so careful of? Well, that's got a tame voodoo in it."

 The others laughed.

"What he like?" asked the Nigger gravely.

"He's a fine voodoo, with wavery arms and green eyes, and red glows." Watching narrowly its effect he swung off into one of the genuine old crooning voodoo songs, once so common down South, now so rarely heard. No one knows what the words mean--they are generally held to be charm-words only--a magic gibberish. But the Nigger sprang across the fire like lightning, his face altered by terror, to seize Darrow by the shoulders.

 "Doan you! Doan you!" he gasped, shaking the assistant violently back and forth.

"Dat he King Voodoo song! Dat call him all de voodoo--all!"

He stared wildly about in the darkness as though expecting to see the night thronged. There was a moment of confusion. Eager for any chance I hissed under my breath; "Danger! Look out!"

 I could not tell whether or not Darrow heard me. He left soon after. The mention of the chest had focussed the men's interest.

 "Well," Pulz began, "we've been here on this spot o' hell for a long time."

 "A year and five months," reckoned Thrackles.

 "A man can do a lot in that time."

 "If he's busy."

 "They've been busy."


 "Wonder what they've done?"

 There was no answer to this, and the sea lawyer took a new tack.

"I suppose we're all getting double wages."

 "That's so."

 "And that's say four hunder' for us and Mr. Eagen here. I suppose the Old Man don't let the schooner go for nothing."

 "Two hundred and fifty a month," said I, and then would have had the words back.

 They cried out in prolonged astonishment.

"Seventeen months," pursued the logician after a few moments. He scratched with a stub of lead.

"That makes over eleven thousand dollars since we've been out. How much do you suppose his outfit stands him?" he appealed to me.

 "I'm sure I can't tell you," I replied shortly.

 "Well, it's a pile of money, anyway."

 Nobody said anything for some time.

 "Wonder what they've done?" Pulz asked again.

 "Something that pays big." Thrackles supplied the desired answer.

 "Dat chis'----" suggested Perdosa.

 "Voodoo----" muttered the Nigger.

 "That's to scare us out," said Handy Solomon, with vast contempt.

"That's what makes me sure it is the chest."

 Pulz muttered some of the jargon of alchemy.

"That's it," approved Handy Solomon.

"If we could get----"

 "We wouldn't know how to use it," interrupted Pulz.

 "The book----" said Thrackles.

 "Well, the book----" asserted Pulz pugnaciously.

"How do you know what it will be? It may be the Philosopher's Stone and it may be one of these other damn things. And then where'd we be?"

 It was astounding to hear this nonsense bandied about so seriously. And yet they more than half believed, for they were deep-sea men of the old school, and this was in print. Thrackles voiced approximately the general attitude.

"Philosopher's stone or not, something's up. The old boy took too good care of that box, and he's spending too much money, and he's got hold of too much hell afloat to be doing it for his health."

 "You know w'at I t'ink?" smiled Perdosa.

"He mak' di'mon's. He say dat."

 The Nigger had entered one of his black, brooding moods from which these men expected oracles.

 "Get him ches'," he muttered.

"I see him full--full of di'mon's!"

 They listened to him with vast respect, and were visibly impressed. So deep was the sense of awe that Handy Solomon unbent enough to whisper to me:

"I don't take any stock in the Nigger's talk ordinarily. He's a hell of a fool nigger. But when his eye looks like that, then you want to listen close. He sees things then. Lots of times he's seen things. Even last year--the Oyama--he told about her three days ahead. That's why we were so ready for her," he chuckled.

Nothing more developed for a long time except a savage fight between Pulz and Perdosa. I hunted sheep, fished, wandered about--always with an escort tired to death before he started. The thought came to me to kill this man and so to escape and make cause with the scientists. My common sense forbade me. I begin to think that common sense is a very foolish faculty indeed.

It taught me the obvious--that all this idle, vapouring talk was common enough among men of this class, so common that it would hardly justify a murder, would hardly explain an unwarranted intrusion on those who employed me. How would it look for me to go to them with these words in my mouth:

"The captain has taken to drinking to dull the monotony. The crew think you are an alchemist and are making diamonds. Their interest in this fact seemed to me excessive, so I killed one of them, and here I am."

 "And who are you?" they could ask.

 "I am a reporter," would be my only truthful reply.

You can see the false difficulties of my position. I do not defend my attitude. Undoubtedly a born leader of men, like Captain Selover at his best, would have known how to act with the proper decision both now and in the inception of the first mutiny. At heart I never doubted the reality of the crisis.

 Even Percy Darrow saw the surliness of the men's attitudes, and with his usual good sense divined the cause.

 "You chaps are getting lazy," said he, "why don't you do something? Where's the captain?"

 They growled something about there being nothing to do, and explained that the captain preferred to live aboard.

"Don't blame him," said Darrow, "but he might give us a little of his squeaky company occasionally. Boys, I'll tell you something about seals. The old bull seals have long, stiff whiskers--a foot long. Do you know there's a market for those whiskers? Well, there is. The Chinese mount them in gold and use them for cleaners for their long pipes. Each whisker is worth from six bits to a dollar and a quarter. Why don't you kill a few bull seal for the 'trimmings'?"

 "Nothin' to do with a voodoo?" grunted Handy Solomon.

Darrow laughed amusedly.

"No, this is the truth," he assured.

"I'll tell you what: I'll give you boys six bits apiece for the whisker hairs, and four bits for the galls. I expect to sell them at a profit."

Next morning they shook off their lethargy and went seal-hunting. I was practically commanded to attend. This attitude had been growing of late: now it began to take a definite form.

"Mr. Eagan, don't you want to go hunting?" or "Mr. Eagen, I guess I'll just go along with you to stretch my legs," had given way to, "We're going fishing: you'd better come along."

I had known for a long time that I had lost any real control of them; and that perhaps humiliated me a little. However, my inexperience at handling such men, and the anomalous character of my position to some extent consoled me. In the filaments brushed across the face of my understanding I could discover none so strong as to support an overt act on my part. I cannot doubt, that had the affair come to a focus, I should have warned the scientists even at the risk of my life. In fact, as I shall have occasion to show you, I did my best. But at the moment, in all policy I could see my way to little besides acquiescence.

We killed seals by sequestrating the bulls, surrounding them, and clubbing them at a certain point of the forehead. It was surprising to see how hard they fought, and how quickly they succumbed to a blow properly directed. Then we stripped the mask with its bristle of long whiskers, took the gall, and dragged the carcass into the surf where it was devoured by fish. At first the men, pleased by the novelty, stripped the skins. The blubber, often two or three inches in thickness, had then to be cut away from the pelt, cube by cube. It was a long, an oily, and odoriferous job. We stunk mightily of seal oil; our garments were shiny with it, the very pores of our skins seemed to ooze it. And even after the pelt was fairly well cleared, it had still to be tanned. Percy Darrow suggested the method, but the process was long, and generally unsatisfactory. With the acquisition of the fifth greasy, heavy, and ill-smelling piece of fur the men's interest in peltries waned. They confined themselves in all strictness to the "trimmings."

Percy Darrow showed us how to clean the whiskers. The process was evil. The masks were, quite simply, to be advanced so far in the way of putrefaction that the bristles would part readily from their sockets. The first batch the men hung out on a line. A few moments later we heard a mighty squawking, and rushed out to find the island ravens making off with the entire catch. Protection of netting had to be rigged. We caught seals for a month or so. There was novelty in it, and it satisfied the lust for killing. As time went on, the bulls grew warier. Then we made expeditions to outlying rocks.

 Later Handy Solomon approached me on another diplomatic errand.

 "The seals is getting shy, sir," said he.

 "They are," said I.

 "The only way to do is to shoot them," said he.

 "Quite like," I agreed.

 A pause ensued.

 "We've got no cartridges," he insinuated.

 "And you've taken charge of my rifle," I pointed out.

 "Oh, not a bit, sir," he cried.

"Thrackles, he just took it to clean it--you can have it whenever you want it, sir."

 "I have no cartridges--as you have observed," said I.

 "There's plenty aboard," he suggested.

 "And they're in very good hands there," said I.

 He ruminated a moment, polishing the steel of his hook against the other arm of his shirt. Suddenly he looked up at me with a humorous twinkle.

 "You're afraid of us!" he accused.

 I was silent, not knowing just how to meet so direct an attack.

"No need to be," he continued.

 I said nothing.

 He looked at me shrewdly; then stood off on another tack.

"Well, sir, I didn't mean just that. I didn't mean you was really scared of us. But we're gettin' to know each other, livin' here on this old island, brothers-like. There ain't no officers and men ashore--is there, now, sir? When we gets back to the old Laughing Lass, then we drops back into our dooty again all right and proper. You can kiss the Book on that. Old Scrubs, he knows that. He don't want no shore in his. He knows enough to stay aboard, where we'd all rather be."

 He stopped abruptly, spat, and looked at me. I wondered whither this devious diplomacy led us.

"Still, in one way, an officer's an officer, and a seaman's a seaman, thinks you, and discipline must be held up among mates ashore or afloat, thinks you. Quite proper, sir. And I can see you think that the arms is for the afterguard except in case of trouble. Quite proper. You can do the shooting, and you can keep the cartridges always by you. Just for discipline, sir."

The man's boldness in so fully arming me was astonishing, and his carelessness in allowing me aboard with Captain Selover astonished me still more. Nevertheless I promised to go for the desired cartridges, fully resolved to make an appeal.

A further consideration of the elements of the game convinced me, however, of the fellow's shrewdness. It was no more dangerous to allow me a rifle--under direct surveillance--for the purposes of hunting, than to leave me my sawed--off revolver, which I still retained. The arguments he had used against my shooting Perdosa were quite as cogent now. As to the second point, I, finding the sun unexpectedly strong, returned from the cove for my hat, and so overheard the following between Thrackles and his leader:

 "What's to keep him from staying aboard?" cried Thrackles, protesting.

 "Well, he might," acknowledged Handy Solomon, "and then are we the worse off? You ain't going to make a boat attack against Old Scrubs, are you?"

 Thrackles hesitated.

"You can kiss the Book on it, you ain't," went on Handy Solomon easily, "nor me, nor Pulz, nor the Greaser, nor the Nigger, nor none of us all together. We've had our dose of that. Well, if he goes aboard and stays, where are we the worse off? I asks you that. But he won't. This is w'ats goin' to happen. Says he to Old Scrubs, 'Sir, the men needs you to bash in their heads.' 'Bash 'em in yourself,' says he, 'that's w'at you're for.' And if he should come ashore, w'at could he do? I asks you that. We ain't disobeyed no orders dooly delivered. We're ready to pull halliards at the word. No, let him go aboard, and if he peaches to the Old Man, why all the better, for it just gets the Old Man down on him."

 "How about Old Scrubs----"

 "Don't you believe none in luck?" asked Handy Solomon.


 "Well, so do I, with w'at that law-crimp used to call joodicious assistance."

I rowed out to the Laughing Lass very thoughtful, and a little shaken by the plausible argument. Captain Selover was lying dead drunk across the cabin table. I did my best to waken him, but failed, took a score of cartridges--no more--and departed sadly. Nothing could be gained by staying aboard; every chance might be lost. Besides, an opening to escape in the direction of the laboratory might offer--I, as well as they, believed in luck judiciously assisted.

In the ensuing days I learned much of the habits of seals. We sneaked along the cliff tops until over the rookeries; then lay flat on our stomachs and peered cautiously down on our quarry. The seals had become very wary. A slight jar, the fall of a pebble, sometimes even sounds unnoticed by ourselves, were enough to send them into the water. There they lined up just outside the surf, their sleek heads glossy with the wet, their calm, soft eyes fixed unblinkingly on us.

 It was useless to shoot them in the water: they sank at once.

When, however, we succeeded in gaining an advantageous position, it was necessary to shoot with extreme accuracy. A bullet directly through the back of the head would kill cleanly. A hit anywhere else was practically useless, for even in death the animals seemed to retain enough blind instinctive vitality to flop them into the water. There they were lost.

Each rookery consisted of one tremendous bull who officiated apparently as the standing army; a number of smaller bulls, his direct descendants; the cows, and the pups. The big bull held his position by force of arms. Occasionally other, unattached, bulls would come swimming by. On arriving opposite the rookery the stranger would utter a peculiar challenge. It was never refused by the resident champion, who promptly slid into the sea, and engaged battle. If he conquered, the stranger went on his way. If, however, the stranger won, the big bull immediately struck out to sea, abandoning his rookery, while the new-comer swam in and attempted to make his title good with all the younger bulls. I have seen some fierce combats out there in the blue water. They gashed each other deep---

You can see by this how our hunting was never at an end. On Tuesday we would kill the boss bull of a certain establishment. By Thursday, at latest, another would be installed. I learned curious facts about seals in those days. The hunting did not appeal to me particularly, because it seemed to me useless to kill so large an animal for so small a spoil. Still, it was a means to my all-absorbing end, and I confess that the stalking, the lying belly down on the sun-warmed grass over the surge and under the clear sky, was extremely pleasant. While awaiting the return of the big bull often we had opportunity to watch the others at their daily affairs, and even the unresponsive Thrackles was struck with their almost human intelligence. Did you know that seals kiss each other, and weep tears when grieved?

The men often discussed among themselves the narrow, dry cave. There the animals were practically penned in. They agreed that a great killing could be made there, but the impossibility of distinguishing between the bulls and the cows deterred them. The cave was quite dark.

Immerced in our own affairs thus, the days, weeks, and months went by. Events had slipped beyond my control. I had embarked on a journalistic enterprise, and now that purpose was entirely out of my reach.

Up the valley Dr. Schermerhorn and his assistant were engaged in some experiment of whose very nature I was still ignorant. Also I was likely to remain so. The precautions taken against interference by the men were equally effective against me. As if that were not enough, any move of investigation on my part would be radically misinterpreted, and to my own danger, by the men. I might as well have been in London.

However, as to my first purpose in this adventure I had evolved another plan, and therefore was content. I made up my mind that on the voyage home, if nothing prevented, I would tell my story to Percy Darrow, and throw myself on his mercy. The results of the experiment would probably by then be ready for the public, and there was no reason, as far as I could see, why I should not get the "scoop" at first hand.

Certainly my sincerity would be without question; and I hoped that two years or more of service such as I had rendered would tickle Dr. Schermerhorn's sense of his own importance. So adequate did this plan seem, that I gave up thought on the subject.

My whole life now lay on the shores. I was not again permitted to board the Laughing Lass. Captain Selover I saw twice at a distance. Both times he seemed to be rather uncertain. The men did not remark it. The days went by. I relapsed into that state so well known to you all, when one seems caught in the meshes of a dream existence which has had no beginning and which is destined never to have an end.

We were to hunt seals, and fish, and pry bivalves from the rocks at low tide, and build fires, and talk, and alternate between suspicion and security, between the danger of sedition and the insanity of men without defined purpose, world without end forever.