Saturday, 16 April 2011
Red Peter Part II
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories magazine, March 1927. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr., Cathy Conrad and Doug Frizzle, April 2011.
Pedro had been brought up on a lonely island in the Caribbean by his foster father, Don Ramon Ortega, who found him as a baby, tied to a bit of washed-up driftwood. He knew nothing of his real parents or nationality, and when his foster father died he sailed away to discover what he could about his origin, also to carry out an oath of vengeance against the buccaneers who had ruined the old Don. He fell in with an ex-pirate named “One-eared Jake,” who offered to get a crew together and help him prey upon the freebooters themselves.
A SERIAL—PART II.
Pedro’s piratical henchman had no intention of attempting to secure his crew of cutthroats at St. Martin’s. Although the sea rovers were not infrequent visitors to the island—and were as a rule welcomed by the inhabitants as the good spenders that they were—still, it was by no means a buccaneers’ haunt. There were plenty of French filibusters in the town, but “One-eared” Jake had no use for these rascals. To be sure there was scarcely a buccaneer ship that did not include French corsairs in its crew, but dissensions between French and English shipmates were common and were often serious, and the scarred and villainous old pirate who had attached himself to Pedro would have none but his fellow countrymen in his crew.
So, having explained these matters to Pedro, he suggested that they should sail at once for Anegada where, he averred, he could secure a company of his former shipmates, all of whom had some real or imagined grievance against the buccaneer leaders and would gladly join this unique venture of pirating pirates.
“I be no navigator,” he declared, “but ‘tis naught of a sail to Anegada, an’, once we raise yon island, leave it to One-eared Jake to see ye safe through the reefs. Aye, cap’n, many’s the time I’ve steered craft ‘twixt the breakers an’ ne’er scratched paint. Come daybreak, we’ll up sail an’ be off, an’ with a fair wind we’ll be safe an’ snug to anchor inside the reefs by sundown next day. Aye, an’ blow me, cap’n, but ye’ll be havin’ a name for this tidy craft. What call ye her, cap’n?”
It had never occurred to Pedro to name the piragua, but often he had likened the swift, white-winged vessel to a sea gull, and so, as Jake explained that a name was essential, he at once declared that she should be the Gaviota. Jake shook his head. “Nay, I like not that,” he announced. “’Tis a Don’s name an’ naught of Don will do. Sink me, but ye’ll be no getting’ British seamen to ship along on a craft with a Spanish name. Nay, cap’n, heave the Dons’ lingo over and side an’ call her Sea Gull an’ be done with it.”
To Pedro’s mind the English equivalent of the Spanish name seemed harsh and cumbersome, but he realized that if he was to deal with English-speaking men and was to throw in his lot with the British, that Spanish had no place in his schemes, and so he assented and henceforth the piragua became the Sea Gull.
With the first faint saffron of dawn in the eastern sky, the huge lateen sail of the piragua was hoisted, and to the cool morning breeze the Sea Gull slipped out of St. Martin’s harbour and headed northward for the wave-beaten, low-lying isle of Anegada.
To the old buccaneer, who had sailed these seas countless times, there was no novelty about the voyage, and curling up on a shady spot on the deck, he snored away the hours. But to Pedro it was all a wondrous adventure, and time and time again he aroused his sleeping shipmate to ask questions regarding the green isles that rose from the sea before the piragua’s shearing prow and faded into the haze astern. Each time he expected to hear the old rascal declare that the land was their destination, but each time he was disappointed. There was Anguilla, Virgin Gorda, Tortola, and not until dawn of the next day broke, and under the rising sun a line of leaping foam about a low green shore was revealed, did Jake show the slightest interest.
“Aye, yonder ‘tis,” he declared as he shaded his pop eyes with a calloused, hairy hand. “Yonder’s Anegada, cap’n. Give me the helm an’ I’ll take the Sea Gull through yon breakers.”
Relinquishing the tiller, Pedro stared ahead into the dazzling light as each moment the plunging craft approached nearer and nearer to the breaking surf. To his eyes there was no break in that roaring, upflung barrier of foam and jagged, black reefs, and Jake, steering the Sea Gull straight for the thundering surf, seemed bent on destroying the craft. About the piragua the backwash boiled and hissed. The craft pitched and careened to the foam-capped waves, and on every side the fangs of coral showed between the white masses of broken water. But Jake never faltered. Peering ahead, he drove his craft into the maelstrom. With a hoarse bellow he ordered Pedro to trim sail and then, when it appeared inevitable that the piragua would be dashed to pieces, he suddenly shoved the helm hard over, the craft shot into the wind, and, an instant later, the breakers were astern and the Sea Gull was slipping toward shore through the tranquil waters of the reef-protected harbor.
The old buccaneer chuckled. “What think ye of that, cap’n?” he cried. “A snug harbor, eh?” An’ better guarded that with stoutest forts an’ great guns. Aye, an’ ye know not yon passage ‘twixt the reefs, ye’d ne’er win in, an’ ye can lay to that.”
Anchored within the barrier of the reefs were several vessels; two of them fairly large craft with two masts, square-rigged and known as the maritime parlance of those days as “sloops,” while the others were piraguas and so-called “barks.”
“Blow me, but we be in luck,” cried Jake as he glanced at these craft with an appraising eye. “See ye yonder sloops an’ the bark to leeward? They be buccaneer craft, cap’n. Aye, yonder sloop with the red flag an’ green cross be the Revenge—many’s the prize One-eared Jake has boarded from she—an’ t’other’s the Malice of Cap’n Mace. Aye, cap’n, we can pick an’ choose of a rare fine lot of lads ashore, I’ll be bound.”
And when, a little later, Pedro stepped ashore on this haunt of the sea rovers, he decided that Jake indeed had a rare fine lot from which to select his crew. Never had he seen a more villainous and disreputable-looking crowd of human beings. The village, straggling along just beyond reach of the sea, was built mainly of odds and ends of wreckage salvaged from the waves. Every other shack seemed a drinking place and the filthy, sandy streets were crowded with loud-voiced, blaspheming, roistering men and foul-tongued, slatternly women. Every race and color was there. Half-naked black Negro slaves toiled at rolling casks and barrels. Bold-faced negresses in gay bandannas and bedraggled clothes sat in doorways or glided, with swaying hips, along the lanes. Swarthy half-breeds, blond-haired Dutchmen, black-eyed Frenchmen, and burly British mingled and passed rude jests and roared out drunken songs, and everywhere were groups, haggling, bargaining, quarrelling over piles of merchandise being bartered by the corsairs just in from a successful foray.
Tossed down carelessly in piles were priceless silks, shimmering satins, brocaded velvets and sparkling jewels. Casks of the richest Spanish wines were broached in the streets and tipsy pirates drank the contents from golden chalices looted from Spanish churches. Doubloons, pieces of eight, onzas and golden guineas clinked and changed hands as the buccaneers disposed of their loot, and a moment later tossed their coins on sloppy tables and gulped down fiery rum or staked a fortune on the turn of a card. In one spot a crowd had gathered, and as Jake and Pedro approached, roars of hilarity arose from the knot of bewhiskered, bizarrely-clothed, heavily-armed men.
In the center of the group stood a huge, burly ruffian, red faced, blear-eyed, shaggy browed, with unshaven cheeks and a bulbous, battered nose. Upon his feet were immense jack boots of salt-incrusted, red Cordovan leather. His hairy legs were covered above the knees by flowing breeches of sky-blue satin, stained with tar, and caked with dirt. Over his shoulders was a coat of scarlet velvet, belaced with gold and showing ominous splotches of dried blood, and about his middle was a broad leather belt, through which silver-mounted pistols and a wicked Catalan knife were thrust. At his side dangled a heavy cutlass, and, perched rakishly on one side of his head, was a broad-brimmed, high-crowned felt hat with bedraggled plumes, drooping to his shoulders, covered with his matted, greasy hair.
Before him stood a huge cask of wine, and standing unsteadily on his wide-spread feet, he was dipping a pannikin into priceless liquor and with roars of laughter and fearful oaths was flinging the contents upon the onlookers.
“He be Cap’n Mace,” muttered Jake, as the two pressed through the throng and caught sight of the tipsy pirate. “A rare lad for passin’ of a joke, but a devil in his cups. Methinks——” At this moment the famous buccaneer chieftain noticed Pedro.
“Zounds!” he cried with a drunken leer. “Who have we here? Look at yon pretty boy, mates! A suckling babe comes to join the wolves in truth. Here, me beauty, come have drink to the health of the Brethren—an’ ye be weaned of suckling as yet.”
Pedro’s face flushed at the words and as the pirate’s jest was greeted with a roar of laughter and all eyes were turned in his direction, he drew back.
“An’ by the blood of Drake look ye who he has for wet nurse!” shouted Mace. “Sink me, but ‘tis no less’n One-eared Jake! Aye, a fine, pretty baby boy an’ a right proper nurse for he. Come an’ drink I say.”
Then, with a sudden scowl as Pedro made no move to obey, he lurched forward, his blear eyes gleamed wickedly, his lips drew back in a snarl and with an oath he hurled the pannikin of wine full in Pedro’s face.
Without hesitating, his hot blood aroused by insult, Pedro reached for his sword and sprang forward.
“Nay, stay!” cried Jake, grasping the youth’s sleeve. “Cross him not, cap’n. He be a murderous rascal an’ll cut ye down like ye was a dog. He be drunk an’ in jokin’ mood. Say naught ——”
Pedro wrenched himself free, and with drawn sword, utterly heedless of his comrade’s warning, forced his way forward. Instantly, as his purpose dawned upon them, the men about drew aside. All knew Mace’s temper and none wished to be within reach, once his berserk fury was aroused. But their love of a fight and lust for bloodshed partly overcame their fears, and, forming a ring about the two principals, they shouted with glee as they saw Mace whip out his heavy cutlass and crouch forward as Pedro approached.
“Oh ho!” he shouted in a thick voice: “So the young cockerel likes not the wine of Spain! Curse ye for a impudent dog. Think ye to match blades with Merry Mace?”
“Nay, with a drunken brawler,” replied Pedro. “I take not thy jests as such, nor came I here to be made the butt of thy ill-timed jokes.”
“Blast me, hear the baby prate!” shouted Mace, leaping with remarkable agility upon Pedro, and swinging a vicious blow.
But as old Don Ramon’s blade flashed up and the cutlass slithered on the Toledo steel and glanced harmlessly aside, a strange expression of mingled amazement and chagrin swept over the pirate’s drunk-flushed face.
The next second Pedro’s sword darted out. With a curse and a sharp cry Mace dropped his cutlass as blood spurted from his wrist, and a shout arose from the onlookers.
“First blood!” yelled one. “Sink us, but yon lad can handle sword in rare style!”
“Nay, ‘tis that Jerry be in cups!” cried another.
“Stow it—he ever fights best when middlin’ drunk,” declared a third.
“A scratch—naught else—bide ye till Jerry gets his wind,” yelled still another.
With a snarl of rage, Mace seized a pistol in his left hand and levelled it at his antagonist. But Pedro was as quick as the pirate. Had he been so minded he might easily have run the other through before he had time to draw his pistol; but Pedro had been taught by a Spanish grandee and gentleman and the old Don had ever told him that no cavalier would stoop to killing a disarmed enemy, and so he had waited until Mace had time to draw. But the old Don had never instructed him as to the code of honor to be followed when an antagonist drew a pistol and one had but a sword, and Pedro was thus thrown upon his own resources and primitive instincts.
And as primitive man knew nothing of swords or swordsmanship, but fell upon his enemies with cudgel or bludgeon, so Pedro, finding himself at a loss and reverting to instinctive rough-and-tumble methods, forgot all that Don Ramon had so painstakingly taught him. With a savage cry he leaped forward, swinging his sword, and brought the massive hand-wrought iron hilt crashing upon the tousled head of the pirate chief. No human skull could resist that blow. It thudded upon the buccaneer’s crown like a maul on a cask, the pistol roared harmlessly past Pedro’s shoulder, and with a smothered groan the redoubtable Mace sank limply to the wine-sodden sand.
For a tense instant, not a sound arose from the throats of the crowd, and then a mighty shout of wonder and approbation roared out.
Jake was tugging at Pedro’s sleeve. “Up anchor an’ set sail, cap’n,” he urged. “Blood an’ powder, but ‘tis no place to bide long. Ye’ve given mortal insult to Jerry Mace an’ he’s none to take an’ forgive. Better ye’d have kilt him an’ done with it. He’ll have your life for this, I’ll warrant.”
“Mayhap,” replied Pedro with a smile. “But to take mine life he must first learn better skill with sword than he has shown. Nay, I fear him not, Jake. And I would not take life of man save in self defense nor would I run through a tippler dazed with drink.”
“Sink me, but ye be a rare queer fish!” cried the pirate. “Be not a tipsy man as like to kill ye as one sober? Faith, ‘tis little difference I can see ‘twixt a-runnin’ of a man through an’ bashin’ of his pate with bludgeon.”
But the fellow’s words were scarcely heard by Pedro, for the crowd of roistering buccaneers had pressed close about him, praising, complimenting, lauding him, slapping him on the back, and one and all begging for an opportunity to join with him on whatever venture he had in mind, for every one appeared to take it for granted that he was a leader and was about to go forth on a buccaneering trip. And one and all appeared to feel heartily grateful to the youth for putting the bullying Captain Mace to sleep and temporarily, at least, ending his boisterous and unpleasant ways.
But Captain Jerry, as he was more commonly known, was not one to remain long unconscious from a tap on his hard head. Presently he stirred, took a deep breath, spat out a foul oath, and sat up, rubbing his tousled head ruefully and gazing about in a dazed, uncomprehending fashion. Instantly the crowd drew back, and Pedro, expecting the pirate chieftain to resume his attack, half drew his sword. But all the fight had been taken from Mace, and his head, though reeling and aching, had been cleared by the blow. Slowly and groggily he rose to his feet, and a sickly grin distorted his features. Then, extending his hand, he approached Pedro.
“No ill feelings, lad,” he cried. “Blood of Drake, but ye wield a ready blade. Aye, and with either end of sword. By Saint George, I know not if the hilt be not more deadly than the point! And I like ye the better for it, lad—‘twere mine own fault—I were a bit joyous and rough, mayhap. But sink me, my head do ache most amazin’.”
Pedro seized the fellow’s proffered hand, only too willing to accept his apology and be friends, while the buccaneers looked on in utter amazement, and Jake’s eyes bulged from their sockets at the unprecedented sight of the redoubtable Mace making overtures to an unknown stripling who had knocked the chieftain down as though a common ragamuffin.
“Ye be a fine strapping lad,” remarked Mace, glancing appraisingly over his late antagonist. “Aye, and a born fighter. Be ye in want of ship, come along of Jerry Mace and I warrant ye’ll make a tidy winnin’.”
“Nay, I need not ship,” replied Pedro, as Jake nudged him. “I have piragua of mine own, thank ye.”
The other’s eyebrows lifted. “Piragua, eh,” he muttered. “So ye be minded to go a-filibustering on your own account. Well, good luck an’ rich prizes to ye. An’ ‘tis a fine rare mate ye have—One-eared Jake—aye, sight of he alone will drive the Dons to surrender. And a piragua—well, many a buccaneer chief has won fame an’ fortune in worse craft—faith, mine first prizes were taken in open boats. Welcome to the Brethren, I say. And may I ask how be ye known?”
It was on the tip of Pedro’s tongue to blurt out his name, but in the nick of time he bethought himself of the buccaneers’ hatred of all things Spanish and with quick wit he replied: “Peter.”
“Peter!” repeated the other. “There be many a Peter ‘mongst the Brethren. How——”
“Blow me, but few with red hair like cap’n’s,” put in Jake. “Blood an’ powder, but thatch like of that’s as good as colors to masthead. ‘Tis ‘Red’ Peter ye be talkin’ with, Cap’n Mace.”
A vaguely puzzled expression crept over the buccaneer leader’s face at the one-eared pirate’s words. The fellow spoke as though Red Peter were a name to conjure with, as if all should know it, and he racked his brains trying to recall it, to remember ever having heard of a buccaneer bearing the nickname. But he was not one to let others think him ignorant or forgetful, and instantly, his expression changed and a look of recognition swept over his countenance.
“Zounds, yes!” he exclaimed. “I might have knowed it. Faith, I thought ye to be a older man, cap’n. And I though ye’d be commandin’ a bit larger craft than piragua. But I might have knowed Jake would ne’er be found along of other than a famed leader. Aye, ‘tis honor to be knocked silly by such as ye, Cap’n Peter—an’ I must have been sorry drunk not to a knowed ye.”
Somewhat confused at the turn of events and the buccaneer’s words, Pedro flushed and stammered, but whatever he said was drowned by the exclamations of surprise and sharp, indrawn breaths of the assembled freebooters as they heard the redoubtable Mace’s words and realized that the youth with Jake was such a notorious and famed chieftain that even Jerry Mace addressed him with respect.
Thus, without any effort on his part and solely by the ready wit and sheer bluff of his one-eared henchman, Pedro leaped to fame and won a name that was destined to become known throughout the length and breadth of the Caribbean and to every member of that strange, reckless organization—the Brethren of the Main.
One-eared Jake had never heard the well-known precept regarding a tide in the affairs of men, but being a thorough sailor, a wise man, and an experienced and canny old rascal, he never waited for a tide to turn before taking advantage of it. And so, deeming that Peter’s affairs were at flood tide, he decided that there was no time like the present for making advantageous use of it. As Mace, still a bit groggy from his liquor and Peter’s blow, stalked unsteadily out of sight, the one-eared pirate called to several of the buccaneers by name, and crooking his gnarled and calloused forefinger suggestively, and winking one protruding eye, beckoned for them to follow him. Then, pressing his way through the crowd with the villainous-looking scoundrels at his heels, he led Peter through devious and narrow alleys where stagnant, ill-smelling water filled the gutters and unhealthy-looking weeds sprouted from between the rough cobbles.
On either side were squalid huts of sun-baked mud and palm thatch, and from whose dark portals slatternly-brown women or tousle-headed, swarthy men peered forth, gazing at the little knot of buccaneers with dull, red-rimmed eyes. Turning to right and left along the miserable thoroughfares of the slums of the town, Jake and his party continued on their way until, descending a steep, hilly street with neglected, broken pavement, they came to a blank wall of stone. Along the top, some twelve feet above the roadway, the barrier was covered with a jagged row of broken bottles set in mortar. Here and there small openings that looked like loopholes pierced the wall. Dangling vines and gay-flowered creepers partly hid its half-crumbling masonry and the only opening visible, a tiny iron-studded door of massive wood, seemed not to have been opened for years.
Stepping toward this, Jake rapped peremptorily upon the timber with a pistol butt and presently, from within, came a gruff voiced speaking in words unintelligible to Peter.
“One-eared Jake an’ a crew of friends, matey,” replied the pirate. Almost instantly rusty hinges creaked, the door swung slowly outward, and Jake, Peter and their followers stepped through the aperture.
Peter glanced about. The door had already closed behind them and a villainous-looking old man, whose single eye glared balefully, was setting heavy iron bars in sockets to hold it more securely. Peter and his companions were in a small courtyard whose pavement of broken tiles, neglected flower beds filled with weeds, and ornate, though dry fountains, spoke of past beauty and an expenditure of wealth. Half hidden amid the tangle were moldy, broken statues. Piled in one corner of the wall was a heap of rusty iron, old cables, weathered cordage and discarded tackle. In another spot were several shattered sea chests. Empty wine kegs were scattered carelessly about, and in the center of the court two ornate brass cannon were mounted. These were the only objects that did not appear to have been neglected and uncared for for years.
Both were mounted on stout wooden carriages. Both were clean and polished; both were fitted with fresh ropes and lanyards. As Peter passed them, he noticed that both pieces were primed and ready for instant use, and that both were trained upon the portal through which he had come. Very evidently those who dwelt within the confines of the wall had no intention of being taken by surprise or by enemies forcing ingress through the little door, and Peter wondered why such precautions should be taken in a town where the wild buccaneers were welcome and no Don or other enemy of the freebooters would dare set foot.
Scarcely had these thoughts passed through his mind when the courtyard was crossed and Jake led the way into a low stone building that seemed a portion of the massive wall itself. In the semidarkness Peter could distinguish little of the furnishings or surroundings. He could see only that the room was low and windowless. The air within reeked of stale liquor, strong tobacco and decay. Near the center was a heavy, rough table and a number of low benches were standing about. Wine and rum barrels could be dimly seen. There was the dull glint of copper, brass and steel here and there, and from the shadows came the lowered, deep-throated rumble of husky voices from invisible speakers.
"Welcome to the rat hole,” cried Jake as he and his companions entered the place. “A fit name, think ye not, cap’n?”
Then, with a chuckle in his hairy throat, he added: “Aye, a hole in truth an’ more fittin’ for rats than for men, ye’ll be sayin’. But, sink me, ‘tis a snug, tidy spot for honest sailormen for to meet an’ swap yarns ‘twixt one an’ t’other an’ no swabs a-listenin’ as don’t be wanted. Aye, a rat hole ‘tis, but, by the bones of Drake, there’ll be no dyin’ like rats in trap in this hole, cap’n. Nay, ‘tis no trap—there be many a way out, though but one in—an’ a passin’ hard nut for crackin’ for them as might have minds for to crack it.
As he spoke, he kicked a couple of benches beside the table, waved his hand toward one with an unspoken invitation for Peter to be seated, and flung himself down on another, followed by the other buccaneers.
Hobbling across the courtyard, the old fellow, who had unbarred the gate, now entered, his shock head wabbling from side to side and up and down as though the neck were a loosely coiled spring, his one deep-set eye glancing to right and left, his drooling, bloated lips moving soundlessly, and his heavy shoes making an odd, shuffling, scraping sound on the rough stones underfoot.
“Rum for the lands an’ wine for cap’n,” cried Jake, as the old derelict of humanity halted before the table, standing somewhat shakily on his bowed legs, and with his bent back and outstretched, scrawny neck reminding Peter of a hungry vulture. “An’ mind, ‘tis the best wine ye be settin’ forth. Aye,” as the old rascal mumbled some question, “Aye, that from the Santa Maria, faith, there be naught too good for Cap’n Red Peter.”
With a movement so rapid and unexpected that Peter involuntarily shrank back, the old fellow swung about, thrust his unshaven, filthy face close to Peter’s and stared into his eyes. Then, with a harsh cackle and a toothless grin he nodded, wheeled and shuffled off into the shadows.
“He’ll know ye now, cap’n,” rumbled Jake. “Aye, even if he met ye in hell. He’s a rare un, this ol’ ‘Deadeye,’ a rare old rat in this hole of hisn. An’ ye can trust him, cap’n. Aye, no fear of his speakin’ aught he hears. An’ one on us as holds ill will ‘gainst them as ye’re minded to go cruisin’ for. Sink me, if ‘twa’nt Starling hisself as was after blindin’ an’ breakin’ of him, if I ben’t mistook!”
“Stow it, Jake,” cautioned one of the buccaneers, as the shuffle of Deadeye’s feet told of his approach. “He’ll be clean offn his head an’ he hears ye speakin’ of Starling’s name.”
As the old fellow reached the table and placed wine before Peter, and pannikins of rum before the others, Jake touched his arm.
“Who be them yonder?” he asked, lowering his voice to a hoarse whisper. “Who be them swabs I hears talkin’ in the shadows?”
“They be quite right, Master Jake,” replied the aged fellow, nodding his head to energetically that Peter half expected to see it roll off the shoulders onto the dirty table top. “’Tis ‘Black Tom’ and ‘Sil’er Heels.’”
“Sink me, they be the very ones we’re wantin’!” exclaimed Jake. Half turning his head, he called to the unseen men whose voices Peter had heard.
There was the scraping of benches on stone, the sound of footsteps, and two men appeared, as though evolved from the dusky, smoke-filled shadows. One was short, lithe, wiry and so dark of skin and beard that he might have been a Moor. The other was slender, tall, fair skinned and blond haired, with a cynical smile on his rather handsome face. Both were clad in long, flowing coats, that of the dark man bottle green, the other cardinal red. Both wore knee breeches and heavy jack boots, and both bristled with pistols and knives and wore heavy cutlasses at their sides. But whereas the dark man’s garments were frayed, stained and spotted with grease, and more ominous, dull-red patches, the other’s clothes were immaculate. But the item of apparel that was most noticeable, and that instantly caught Peter’s eyes, were the boots of the light-haired man. Of soft Cordovan leather with broad, flopping tops and huge buckles, yet they differed from all others of their sort inasmuch as the entire heels and backs seemed formed from polished silver. It was as evident how the wearer of these unique boots had won his nickname as why the swarthy, low-browed, black-bearded fellow had been dubbed Black Tom.
“Sit ye down, mates,” cried Jake, as the two appeared. “Blow me, but ‘twere no ill wind as blowed ye here. ‘Tis Cap’n Red Peter, ye see yonder. Aye, an’ ‘tis a cruisin’ along of him I’m goin’.”
Black Tom scowled and Silver Heels’ eyebrows lifted as they turned toward Peter and stared at him.
“Mayhap, mayhap,” mumbled the swarthy Tom, showing yellow fangs between his lips as he spoke. “But scuttle me, Jake, if I ever heard of a Cap’n Red Peter afore.”
“Nay, good friend,” put in Silver Heels, speaking in a soft, well-modulated voice and with his words twisting one corner of his mouth downward, “’Tis a strange thing for you to bring chance acquaintances to the Rat Hole.”
Instantly One-eared Jake straightened up. Hunching his broad shoulders, thrusting out his chin belligerently, and with an ugly glare on his face, he wheeled on the two.
“Stow that!” he hissed. “Since when have ye owned the Rat Hole or been nursemaid to One-eared Jake? An’ because ye ne’er heard of Cap’n Peter it but shows the sorry swabs ye be! By blood an’ powder, if ye’d know who Cap’n Red Peter be, go ye out an’ arsk Jerry Mace. Sink me for a bloody sojer, but ‘twas not an hour past as Cap’n Peter here was pummellin’ of Jerry mace with sword hilt like his head were a rum cask he’d been broachin’.”
“Aye,” growled the other buccaneers in chorus, and nodding affirmatively. “That he was, mates, an’ a rare, fine sight ‘twere.”
“An’ took his drubbin’ like a man, he did,” continued Jake. “Think ye Jerry Mace’d be the lad to be knocked about the gutter by one not his better an’ arterwards crave pardon for bein’ sodden with drink an’ shakin’ han’s with him as drubbed him? Red Peter in faith! Blow me, but ye be fair, fine buccaneers an’ ye ne’er heard of one as can handle both on ye with one hand, an’ that tied behind his back.”
A strange expression had swept over Silver Heels’ features as Jake spoke, and a look of amazement had filled Black Tom’s ugly face. That any man should have pitted himself against Jerry Mace and lived to tell the tale was almost beyond belief, and yet they had it on the strength of the word of Jake and the three others, and it could not be doubted. But still more incredible, the four were affirming that the man before them had not only worsted the redoubtable Mace, but the latter had even apologized for his behavior and had shaken hands with the victor and had parted on the best of terms.
Why had they never heard of such a buccaneer chieftain? For years they had been sailing the Caribbean in piratical craft. They had served under countless leaders and they knew many: Mace, Sharp, Penrose, Ogeron, Hedly, and scores of others personally. The deeds of L’Ollonais, Portugues, Montbars, Morgan and all the other famous corsairs were well known to them. But never had they heard mention of Captain Red Peter, and their looks of amazement changed to wonder, puzzlement and finally utter helplessness.
But whatever their thoughts, they were not men slow of wit. If Jake and his fellows knew of Red Peter and vouched for him it was enough, and with rough though sincere words of apology, they craved pardon of Peter and his companions for their ignorance.
“’Twould sarve ye well did cap’n crack yer thick skulls,” muttered Jake. “A castin’ question ‘gainst his name. But ye know now and all’s plain sailin’, so let’s be a-getting’ on our course and a squintin’ at our chart for to see where we be a-cruisin’, so to speak.”
Then, after interrupting his discourse long enough to gulp down a pannikin of raw rum, he proceeded to explain Peter’s purpose and his own ideas.
He mentioned how he had met Peter, how the latter had thrown himself into the mêlée and had, single handed, cut down a “round score,” as he declared, of his enemies, and how Peter, having a personal grudge against Captain Starling, was bent on hunting down and destroying the famous buccaneer. Very wisely he omitted all mention of Peter’s origin, his Spanish name or of the story Peter had related to him. To be sure, his original intention had been to tell the tale in its entirety, but the incident with Mace, Peter’s victory, and the chance mention of Red Peter and the manner in which it had been received by Captain Mace and the others had completely altered his plans.
He realized that, after the encounter with Mace, the newly bestowed nickname and Peter’s mythical reputation would be of far greater value than any other tale, either true or wholly imaginary, and he was not mistaken. At first Peter was several times on the point of interrupting Jake and blurting out the truth. But each time he attempted to speak the one-eared rascal kicked his shins under the table or gave him a warning scowl, and at last Peter kept silent, leaving everything to his henchman.
“’Tis no matter of ourn what cap’n holds ‘gainst Starling,” rumbled Jake. “An’ ‘tis no concernin’ of hisself what we have ‘gainst them as we holds ill will ‘gainst. Mayhap ye don’t all of ye hold ill will, but ‘tis all the same to my thinkin’. Faith, mates, do we owe ary cap’n of the Brethren aught? Not a brass farthin’, says I. An’ how does they get their loot? I’m arskin’ ye. Why, by robbin’ an’ murderin’, says I. Aye, an’ where’s the harm of robbin’ robbers? I’m arskin’ ye. None at all, ye’ll be sayin’! Faith, an’ ‘tis by that same argiment the Cap’ns be robbin’ the Dons. The Dons robs the Indians, says they, so why not rob the Dons. Likewise an’ by the same argiment why shouldn’t we be robbin’ the robbers what robs the robbers?
“An’ here be the chance for we, mates. Here be Cap’n Peter with a fine, fast piragua, the Sea Gull. And here be we all ready an’ hungerin’ for a fight, an’ fair famishin’ for good pieces of eight an’ doubloons an’ onzas; an’ there be the ships a-cruisin’ hither an’ yon with hatches bu’stin’ with loot from the Dons. Blow me, mates, but ‘tis a fine, lively time we’ll be havin’, a-fillin’ of our pockets an’ an evenin’ of old scores to once an’ the same time. Aye, I mind me the time I were marooned by Sharp, yonder on Oruba, an’ mayhap ye have not forgotten the flayin’ ye won from Gautier, Tom. An’ ye, Sil’er Heels, blow me, if I didn’t hear sutthin’ of Lithgow an’ ye as don’t set well in yer stummick. Aye, an’ ‘tis not the first time we been talkin’ a bit along the same course, mates, as ye knows. So here be the chance with a fine cap’n an’ a neat ship, so all hands as is willin’ for to jine just stand up.”
Instantly, all five of the ruffians leaped to their feet, and Jake grinned as they once more seated themselves.
“There ye be, cap’n,” he rumbled triumphantly. “Five fine lads, not countin’ of One-eared Jake, which makes six.”
“Yeah,” replied Peter, “six I can count upon, but is that not too few for our purpose? The pirates be well armed and most desperate fighters.”
At the word, pirate, Black Tom and Silver Heels glared, for odd as it may seem, the buccaneers, though out-and-out pirates, considered themselves far superior to ordinary corsairs. Stranger, too, here were six renegade buccaneers ready and willing to attack, rob and murder their former companions in crime, and yet they keenly resented having those former comrades dubbed pirates.
Peter was wonderfully quick of wit. He had already learned much and was rapidly acquiring more useful knowledge, and he did not miss the look of anger that crossed the faces of the others at his words. Without an instant’s hesitation he continued: “Yea, it is pirates I call them, for is it not better so? Surely you who are of the Brethren would not wish to speak of those we go forth to attack as fellow buccaneers. And if we but look upon them as pirates ‘tis a righteous deed to destroy them, is it not?”
Puzzled frowns furrowed the brows of some of the group. Black Tom’s hostile look faded from his dark eyes, Silver Heels’ mouth twisted in a wry smile, and Jake grinned broadly. The three seamen were dull-witted dolts and cared not a whit whether Peter called them and their fellows pirates, thieves, cutthroats or anything else, as long as there was to be fighting, bloodshed and loot; but they were a trifle puzzled to understand the fine distinctions without differences that Peter was making. Black Tom and Silver Heels were, however, far more intelligent, keener-witted men, and Silver Heels was, in fact, a gentleman born and an educated man.
He was not at all deceived by Peter’s words and knew perfectly well that the red-headed stranger had merely spoken as he had in order to appease the men, and that he looked upon them all as pirates. Indeed, his brains, working rapidly, had jumped to the conclusion that there was something hidden beneath the surface; that Jake’s tale was not the whole truth, even were it nothing but the truth, and that Peter was not the famed buccaneer leader the one-eared rascal would have them believe. Indeed, Peter’s unfortunate use of the word pirate had confirmed his suspicions, for no buccaneer chieftain would ever refer to his fellow freebooters as pirates. It mattered very little to him, however. He was a soldier, or rather a sailor of fortune, caring not a jot under whose flag he served, who he robbed or killed, nor what the right or wrong of the matter might be.
In a drunken brawl he had killed a man in England years before and had been forced to flee, disguised and penniless, from the land of his birth. Reaching the West Indies he had thrown in his lot with the buccaneers, and owing to the fact that he wore jack boots with spurs, having had no time to change his footgear the night of his flight, he had been nicknamed Silver Heels. Proud of this, he had ever afterward affected boots adorned with silver heels and had distinguished himself for bravery, recklessness, callousness and an utter disregard for discipline or the orders of his superiors.
Despite his fighting ability, for which he was welcome aboard any ship, he was forever getting into difficulties, and time and time again had been drummed out of his ship’s company in disgrace, or had met with even more drastic punishment. Ashore, he was a drunkard and spendthrift, a cynic, but ever a gentleman in his behavior. He possessed an insatiable curiosity, delighted in scandal and gossip, and liked nothing better than to have some secret knowledge which he could utilize as blackmail or otherwise to his own advantage.
So, having jumped to the conclusion that there was some mystery, or at least some secret back of Peter’s proposed cruise, and that the red-haired “captain” was not the person Jake claimed, Silver Heels then and there determined to learn the truth by fair means or foul. Not that the matter influenced his decision to join Peter and Jake. He was practically penniless and must needs replenish his pocketbook, so to speak, for he loved the good things of life, the riotous debaucheries of the buccaneers’ lairs, and fine raiment, and not a buccaneer captain would have him as a member of a ship’s company. Thus he was only too glad of the chance to go to sea—especially where good pickings were promised—and it pleased his cynical and warped nature to think of preying on the buccaneers themselves who had been his boon companions.
Black Tom, on the other hand, cared nothing whether Peter was a famed corsair or not. Jake, he knew, was an experienced rascal and had an almost uncanny power of smelling out profitable ventures, and he loved fighting and wild deeds for themselves. That he had fought with the buccaneers did not trouble him when it came to fighting against them. And as his fighting blood had often led to brawls aboard ship and resultant punishment, he held an abundance of grudges against many a buccaneer captain. So, Peter having cleared up the momentary trouble over the inopportune choice of the word pirate, Black Tom was perfectly satisfied, and his mouth drew into a leering grin, and he rubbed his hands in anticipation of wild times to come.
To the fresh morning breeze the Sea Gull heeled under the pressure of her great, lateen sail, flinging showers of spray from her sharp bows and burying her lee rail in the sparkling blue sea. From the masthead streamed a scarlet burgee bearing a somewhat crude representation of a gull in white, Peter’s colors as designed by One-eared Jake. Two brass carronades amidships flashed back the glint of the rising sun. The light sparkled and shone on pistol butts, musket barrels and cutlass hilts, as the score of picturesquely garbed, leather-faced, unshaven men stretched their arms, yawned prodigiously, and, easing cramped muscles, arose from where they had slept, curled on thwarts and floor boards, and peered about the wide-spreading Caribbean Sea.
In the bow, Silver Heels stood poised, one hand grasping the forestay, the other shading his eyes as he gazed steadfastly into the north. In the stern sat Peter, grasping the tiller. Jake was polishing the guns, and Black Tom, squatted forward, was busy over a charcoal brazier preparing breakfast for the hungry crew.
Anegada was many leagues astern. No sign of land broke the rim of the gently heaving sea and no sail lifted above the waves. For over a week the piragua had been cruising. She had tacked back and forth about the Virgins, had scoured the Windward Passage, had rounded Puerto Rico and had sailed under the lee of Santo Domingo. Ships in plenty had been seen. Lumbering British merchantmen, Dutch galleys, a French corvette, and two stately Spanish galleons, but no buccaneers’ craft had come within sight of those on the Sea Gull. Even the wild, reckless fellows under Peter’s flag had no thought of molesting French, Dutch or British ships, but as they saw the high, gilded poops, the lofty masts and the gaudy red-and-yellow flags of Spain’s plate ships their fingers itched, their eyes took on a fierce and savage look, and they licked their lips at thought of booty to be had for the taking.
Never before had they gone on a cruise when the galleons of Spain were not the prey they sought, and to pass them by with never a shot fired nor a cutlass unsheathed, did not suit them in the least. They growled and muttered, swore roundly, spat disgustedly into the sea, and declared, with foul oaths, that this was no sort of freebooting for their stomachs. Jake reasoned, swore, and threatened, pointing out that before they had shipped they had understood that they were to prey only on buccaneer ships. Calling them vile names he vowed he’d shoot down the first who failed to obey his or Peter’s orders. Alone it is doubtful if he could have restrained the men, but Silver Heels seconded him. Peter’s reputation as a swordsman and a fiery-tempered fighter had not been forgotten; and Black Tom, who ever followed in Silver Heels’ lead like a dog at his mater’s heels, suggestively primed his pistols and loosened the heavy cutlass in its scabbard at this side. Thus the difficulty was overcome, the men ceased their mutterings, and all watched expectantly for the quarry they sought.
But as the days slipped by and there was nothing to do but eat and sleep, and as presently provisions ran low, the men again grew restless, while the more superstitious declared that there could be no luck in hunting buccaneers and that misfortune was sure to follow them. It was very questionable if they could be controlled much longer, and Jake and Silver Heels, with Peter and Black Tom, watched every move of the almost mutinous rascals and kept weapons ready for instant use.
And now, as the sun rose once more above an unbroken sea and the men munched their slender rations of buccanned meat and thick, black coffee, their expressions were sullen and black.
“Sink me, but there be trouble brewin’,” Jake confided to Peter in a hoarse whisper. “An’ we no sight sail of buccaneer this day ‘tis open mutiny there’ll be.”
“Yea,” replied Peter. “I have mind——” His words were cut short by a shout from Silver Heels.
“A sail!” he cried from his vantage point on the plunging bow. “A sail, and by the cross of Saint George, a buccaneer ship, and I mistake not.”
Instantly all else was forgotten. The men dropped food and drink, and, leaping to rails and thwarts, shaded their eyes and peered at the horizon. Jake swarmed halfway up the rigging with the agility of a huge ape. Black Tom dropped the stew pan and scrambled to his crony’s side, and Peter, as excited as any, balanced himself on the after rail with the tiller betwixt his feet and gazed at the tiny fleck of white that had risen above the sparkling sea.
Rapidly and loudly opinions were passed, arguments grew hot and voices were raised, as the motley crew declared it was or was not a buccaneers’ vessel.
Jake slid back to the deck, shaking his head. “It do have a uncommon look of buccaneers,” he declared. “An’ Sil’er Heels has eyes like hawk. But yonder ship be boun’ to west’ard, an’ ye shift yer course a point, cap’n, we’ll be within hailin’ distance in an hour or two.”
Shifting his helm, as the men trimmed the immense yard with its lateen sail, Peter headed more to the west, and with this wind on her quarter, the piragua fairly tore through the water. Very rapidly the other ship rose to view, a two-masted craft with square sails forward and lug sail aft, a “sloop” in the parlance of the time. Below the cloud of canvas a high olive-green hull came into view with gun ports piercing the sides. And as the keen eyes of the watchers noted that the stranger’s stern was low and mounted a long gun where the ornate castle should be, a shout of joy arose from the twenty-odd hairy throats of those upon the Sea Gull.
“Blood of Drake, ‘tis buccaneer craft in truth!” cried Jake. “Sink me, but we’ll be havin’ a right merry time, lads.”
Peter was wildly excited. At last he was about to enter on his career of vengeance for his own and Don Ramon’s wrongs. Before him and rapidly approaching, was a ship of the hated corsairs, and his heart beat fast and hot blood surged through his veins as he thought of coming to grips with those upon the other ship. That he or his men might get the worst of the encounter; that he might be wounded or killed; that to attack a piratical ship swarming with reckless, daredevil fighters and provided with fully a dozen heavy guns was a hare-brained, almost mad undertaking, never occurred to him. He knew nothing of fighting with firearms, nothing of the buccaneers’ ways, but he held implicit trust and faith in Jake, and in his ignorance of the terrific odds against him he never doubted the outcome.
Now, from the other ship’s peak, fluttered a gaudy banner of orange and blue, bearing a lozenge-shaped emblem of red, and at sight of the flat a hoarse cry of mingled rage and delight came from Black Tom:
“’Tis Gautier, mates!” he screamed, baring his yellow fangs and with murder in his eyes. “Gautier, the accursed dog! Blood an’ murder, but ‘tis rare luck. Aye, fine rare luck, an’ a fine rare an’ merry time I’ll have, cuttin’ of his murderin’ heart out an’ floggin’ of him with hot irons. Aye, a right merry——“
“Stow it!” commanded Jake. “Mayhap ye owe him all that an’ more for the floggin’ he give ye, but belike ‘twas well merited an’ cap’n’ll have no torturin’ with his crew.”
Black Tom, industriously whetting a long-bladed knife upon his boot, spat out an oath, but before he could reply, Silver Heels spoke:
“You not be fighting Dons, Tom,” he reminded his satellite. “We be all Englishmen, and though Gautier is a Frenchman, those board his ship be British. Nay, Captain Peter and Jake be right. Fair fighting, yes, and loot, yes, but no torturing when we board yonder craft or others of the Brethren.”
With a growl Black Tom subsided for to him Silver Heels’ word was law. Though he glowered at the rapidly approaching sloop and longed in his heart to even scores with the man who had him so unmercifully flogged on one occasion, yet he realized that he must not overstep the bounds of fair fighting, and that he must refrain from inflicting unspeakable tortures on Captain Gautier, if by good fortune the buccaneer chieftain fell into his clutches.
Meanwhile, Jake had been giving rapid, curt orders as to the attack. “Belike,” he explained, “we’ll work close aboard so they cannot use their great guns. They know not yet the Sea Gull nor cap’n’s flag, an’ we’ll win ‘em by surprise. When I give the word, strike ‘twix wind an’ water with both carronades and then grapple, board an’ at ‘em.”
The two vessels were now almost within hailing distance, and as yet those upon the sloop were quite unaware of the identity or purpose of the Sea Gull. That she was not a Spanish vessel, Gautier and his men knew, despite the fact that her rig and hull seemed rather Spanish in cut and build. But the scarlet flag was strange to them. The men crowding the piragua spoke of no peaceful craft, and Gautier was suspicious. Stepping to his quarter-deck rail, he shouted across the intervening stretch of sea, hailing the piragua, and with his men ready and keeping the heavily-shotted long guns trained on the Sea Gull.
In reply to his bellow, Jake cupped his hands and returned the well-known answer of the Brethren: “From the seas.”
“Gautier was puzzled. If those in the piragua were members of the Brotherhood of the Main why had they not given their commander’s name? And if they were not fellow buccaneers why had they given the universally used hail, the maritime password or countersign of the freebooters? Scarcely knowing what to think, hesitating to fire on a craft that might be friendly, Gautier stopped to consider, and his indecision was his undoing. The swift, light piragua was sweeping toward the sloop. Already she was so close that the big guns of the buccaneers could not be depressed enough to strike the hull of the Sea Gull; and until their captain gave the word, Gautier’s men would not send a volley of musketry at the strangers. Before Gautier had made up his mind what course to pursue the piragua was within biscuit toss, and, recognizing One-eared Jake and Silver Heels, the pirate chieftain ripped out an amazed curse which was cut short by a shout from Jake.
“Strike yer colors!” he yelled. “Strike afore we sink ye!”
At the same instant the two carronades on the piragua roared out, and chain shot crashed through the quarter of the sloop, dismounting the after guns, killing the gunners at their posts, and disabling the steering gear. Before the smoke had cleared, the Sea Gull grated alongside the other vessel. Grapples were thrown, and, shouting, yelling, cursing like fiends, the crew of the piragua swarmed over the sloop’s rails, Jake and Peter in the lead, Silver Heels and Black Tom close at their heels, and the twenty wild fellows after them.
Harmlessly the sloop’s broadside had thundered out too late, bringing jeering cries of derision from Peter’s men as the flames and smoke belched from ports beneath their feet, and before the amazed buccaneers knew what had occurred, Peter’s men were on the decks, slashing, stabbing, pistoling; rushing hither and thither like demons, and seeming, to the surprised, dumfounded buccaneers, a full hundred strong.
Suddenly realizing at Jake’s hail that the strangers were enemies, Gautier had shouted orders to his men, and, whipping out cutlass and pistol, had leaped forward. Almost in Jake’s face his pistol had flashed, but with a swinging blow, Peter had struck the weapon up and the bullet tore through Jake’s hat. Dropping the useless pistol, the buccaneer chief lunged savagely with his cutlass at the red-haired youth whose blue-gray eyes shone with the glint of burnished steel. But the flashing, shimmering Toledo blade of Don Ramon met the cutlass in a shower of sparks and turned the heavy weapon aside as easily as though it had been a toy sword of wood. Instantly Gautier realized that here was no common, swashbuckling buccaneer; that the youth before him was a skilled swordsman, and quickly, as the truth dawned upon him, his tactics changed. Trained in the best schools of swordsmanship in France—for Gautier in his youth had been of the French aristocracy—there were few who could equal him with the rapier. But among the buccaneers fine swordplay had no place. It was cut, slash, and hack, and for years Gautier had had no call to put his skill into practice.
But now he was facing a swordsman as adept as himself, and though his weapon was a heavy, broad-bladed cutlass, he sprang back, and, abandoning his heavy blows and savage lunges, put all his skill and knowledge into play. Peter was almost as surprised at this sudden change of tactics as Gautier had been to find his enemy a master of the sword. But he had little time to marvel. He needed all his skill to keep his own skin whole, and, back and forth upon the decks, he and Gautier fought, parried and thrust, while all unheeded by the two, the battle raged, shouts rang out, pistols flashed, muskets roared, blades clashed and men fell dead and wounded.
Silver Heels, Black Tom, and One-eared Jake were having their hands full and were fighting as they had never fought before. Time and again they had boarded Spanish ships, had battled hand to hand with the Dons and had come off victorious. But now they were fighting, not against Spaniards, who were ever terrorized and awed by the buccaneers, but against their fellow buccaneers, against men of their own race, against men of reckless, brave and skilled in rough-and-tumble fighting as themselves. Until they had boarded the sloop they had not realized what this meant, how different it would be from fighting the Dons and truth to tell, had they known they would have thought twice or maybe thrice before joining Peter in his strange and rather mad undertaking.
But once having boarded Gautier’s ship and tackled the buccaneers, there was nothing to be done but fight, and fight to the very best of their ability, with every ounce of their strength.
At times it seemed as if they must be overcome, as if the score under Peter’s burgee must scramble back to the piragua and make the best of their way from the spot, but they were not the sort of men to retreat nor to acknowledge defeat. They had all to gain and nothing to lose—except life and limb which mattered nothing to them—and with redoubled fury they struck and shot and stabbed. The decks were slippery with blood. So dense was the powder smoke that the men battled in a foglike haze. Groans, shrieks and curses filled the air, and the combatants tripped and stumbled over dead and dying men. And through all the turmoil, the fearful carnage, Peter and Gautier fought, matching skill against skill, deft parries against secret passes; using every trick and device of the fencer’s art, as, heedless of their surroundings, they advanced and gave way, turning, pivoting, breaths coming hard, and eyes seeing nothing but each other.
Time and time again the Toledo rapier or the heavy cutlass had drawn blood. Time and again each had shifted weapon from right hand to left and back again, and yet neither seemed to have an advantage, and the duel seemed no nearer an end than at the start.
And then, behind Gautier’s shoulder, half visible in the pungent powder smoke, Peter caught sight of an evil, passion-distorted face. A face, hideous with blood and blackened with powder, a face in which reddened eyes gleamed with terrifying hate and savagery, whose narrow, cruel lips were drawn back over great, yellow fanglike teeth. The face of Black Tom—Black Tom with hand upraised, with bloodstained dirk ready to bury itself in the back of Gautier who had no thought of the danger behind him.
Scarcely realizing he did so, utterly unconscious of his act, Peter shouted a cry of warning to his antagonist.
Another man might have suspected treachery, might have thought Peter’s shout but a ruse to throw him off his guard, to cause him to turn his head and expose himself to the other’s thrust. But Gautier knew men. He knew that the youth, whose life he was seeking, was no cutthroat, no treacherous villain, but a gentleman. In Peter’s belt was a silver-mounted pistol, and had he been less than an honorable foe he would long ago have drawn the weapon and shot down his enemy, thus ending the duel then and there. Moreover, no ordinary ruffian possessed the knowledge of swordsmanship Peter had exhibited, while finally the look in Peter’s eyes, the ring of sincerity in his tones, convinced the French captain that danger lurked in his rear—that Peter’s warning was genuine.
Quick as a flash he wheeled, and not a second too soon! With the speed of lightning, Black Tom sprang. His knife swept down, the blade grazed Gautier’s shoulder, and, overbalanced by the force of his blow and lack of resistance to the murderous blade, he lurched forward and fell headlong upon the deck.
With a harsh cry, Gautier leaped toward him with upraised cutlass. But once more Peter intervened. Although he had saved his antagonist from Tom’s treacherous stroke, he had no mind to have Black Tom cut down while defenceless, and with a swift movement his blade shot out. It rang on the heavy cutlass, and with a quick twist of his wrist, Peter sent Gautier’s sword flying from his grasp.
Instinctively the buccaneer sprang back, expecting to be run through, but Peter, with rapier point at his disarmed enemy’s throat, was merely demanding that he surrender.
Gautier had no choice. A quick glance about told him that the ship was in the hands of the enemy, that the battle was over and that he was absolutely at Peter’s mercy.
“I yield,” he cried. “Aye, I yield to a better man than myself.”
“Sink me, if ye don’t,” shouted a husky voice, as Jake appeared through the dissipating smoke. “Ye yield to Cap’n Red Peter, an’ ye can lay to that.”
Black Tom had ruefully picked himself up and was still crouching, as if meditating whether to renew his attack on Gautier or not. Silver Heels was smilingly wiping the blood from his reddened blade, while the remaining members of Peter’s crew, who were not killed or disabled, were guarding the disarmed, beaten survivors of the sloop’s company or binding up one another’s wounds.
The fight was won. The freebooters had been overcome, and Peter’s heart swelled with pride as he realized that he had taken his first prize and had made a beginning at fulfilling his pledge to old Don Ramon.
TO BE CONTINUED.
Friday, 8 April 2011
The Hand of Fate
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine, December 5, 1923, Vol. VII, No. 3. Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr., Cathy Conrad and Doug Frizzle, April 2011.
Rodney Frazer, being in poor health, is ordered to take a long sea voyage by his physician. Having previously followed the sea, and not being overburdened with an abundance of worldly goods, he secures a berth as mate on the old whaler Beluga, which is just starting out on a voyage from New Bedford.
The captain, Lemuel Dexter, was totally different from the popular conception of a Yankee whaleman. Short, round, with a double chin, and protruding watery blue eyes, he was somewhat of a dandy, wearing spick and span clothes, gaudy shirts, and loud ties and socks. But withal he was a competent skipper and an expert whaleman.
His besetting weakness was his superstition. The most casual happening, the most ordinary occurrences, held a meaning of a foreboding of evil or a promise of good luck. He had been to sea all his life, and wherever he touched he had collected the local superstitions much as others collect curios or postage stamps. It is really about this that the plot is woven. We promise you a pleasant spell while reading it, and doubt very much if you can guess the truth before the last chapter is finished.
“What you need,” said the doctor, “is a long sea voyage. Nothing organic the trouble, but your bones are full of that jungle fever and you need good clean ocean air, an active out of doors life and no mental worry for at least six months.”
I laughed. “The prescription sounds good,” I replied, “but unfortunately you doctors don’t supply the medicine as well. I’m no millionaire to go traveling over the seven seas for six months at present rates of passage, you know.”
The physician raised his eyebrows and smiled. “I don’t mean that, Rod,” he replied. “Take a voyage on a sailing ship—something that’s going half way round the world or more. You might as well be ashore as on a steamship.”
“Even passages on sailing ships cost more than I can afford,” I said, “and they don’t care for passengers as a rule.”
“H’mf” muttered Doctor Chadwick. “How about going as an officer? You hold a master’s ticket, don’t you?”
“I did, years ago,” I answered, “but I haven’t handled a sextant or pricked a course for ages. I’m not up to date, doctor.”
“Fiddlesticks!” he answered. “Navigation’s always the same. You can get a certificate easily enough and good men are always in demand. Go for it, son, it’s the only way to put you on your feet.”
Somewhat skeptical and entirely lacking my medical friend’s confidence in my ability, I devoted several days to refreshing my memory and studying up to date navigation and presented myself before the board with my faded old ticket in hand. But I need not have feared, as Doctor Chadwick had said, navigation doesn’t change much, and like swimming or riding one never forgets seamanship. An hour later I left the room with a brand new ticket in my pocket authorizing me to act as master of sailing craft on any ocean. But I soon found out that officers were not in such demand as my good old medical friend had averred. I was not seeking a berth as master. Freedom from mental worry was not to be found in that capacity and there seemed to be a dozen applicants for other berths for every ship sailing. Steam officers were in demand, to be sure, but the war was over, and square riggers that had been pressed into service during the conflict were being laid up and prospect for a long cruise seemed very distant.
Then I ran across an old friend, and, over our after dinner cigars, I mentioned my difficulties.
“Come on down to New Bedford with me!” cried Nye. You can get a berth on a whaler easily enough. The Beluga’s fitting for a cruise and Captain Dexter’ll jump at the chance of getting a good navigator. It’ll be just the thing. Eight months at least knocking about the Western Ocean. Plenty of outdoor work, old man. What do you say?”
“Can’t say that whaling appeals to me, Pem,” I replied. “I got enough of it that voyage on the old Comet—time I went along with you. Still, I can’t expect medicine to be pleasant and I look upon this as I would on any other prescription. Yes, I guess I’ll accept your offer and go down to old New Bedford.”
Ten days later the Beluga was dropping down New Bedford harbor in tow of a fussy tug and I was bawling orders form the quarter deck and felt the old love of the sea tingling through my veins as the words of a time honoured chantey were roared from the men’s hairy throats:
“They call me Hanging Johnny,
They call me Hanging Johnny,
So hang, boys, hang.”
Slowly to the creak of whining sheaves the yards rose to the caps, the tops’ls were sheeted home, braces were manned and as, with a parting toot of her whistle, the tug cast off our line and turned back, the Beluga heeled to the fresh westerly wind and headed for the broad Atlantic.
She was an old timer—one of the few survivors of the once great fleet of New Bedford whaleships that cruised the seven seas and the five oceans and carried the Stars and Stripes to the uttermost ends of the earth in the days when sperm oil burned in lamps in every home and brought a dollar a gallon in the market. Bluff bowed, wall sided, flat decked; with massive sticks like forest trees and stupendous yards; built by honest Yankee shipwrights of stout white oak and strong pine planking, the Beluga, like all her kind, was designed to last forever and though nearly a century had passed since her keel was laid she was still as stanch, as buoyant, and as seaworthy as ever. In lines and build the bark was a relic of the distant past—almost prehistoric; but her rigging was modern, she carried double tops’ls and to’gallan’s’ls, wire standing rigging and even a little oil engine winch for hoisting the blubber aboard.
For’ard was the old-fashioned fo’c’s’le; abaft the foremast was the try-works with the big boiling kettles and with the carpenter’s bench beside it. Between the main mizzenmasts was the deck house with the galley to port—between it and the after deck house. Three of the thirty-foot whaleboats swung to massive wooden davits on the port side, with one on the starboard quarter, and two spare boats were stowed upside down on skids atop the deck house.
And now, in order that the reader may understand the happenings I shall try to relate, let me describe the interior of the Beluga. The fo’c’s’le, under the heel of the bowsprit, was reached by a hatch just for’ard of the foremast and below this was the forehold wherein were stowed shooks for casks, extra gear, coal, et cetera. Below decks, aft of the foremast, was the fore ’tween decks where oil casks were stowed ready for use and aft of this was the blubber room with the main-mast at its after end. Back of this again was the steerage, reached by the booby hatch just for’ard of the galley, and still farther aft was the captain’s cabin with the captain’s stores in the lazaret below. In the bottom of the bark, in the huge main hold and after ‘tween decks, were the stores, stowed in empty casks which would be filled with oil as they were emptied, and while the forehatch and the main hatch led to the various ‘tween decks and the holds, yet it was possible to go from the fore ‘tween decks to the steerage or vice versa below decks, a necessity when stowing the filled casks or breaking out stores.
All this was familiar to me, for the Beluga was as much like every other whaling bark of her kind as two peas in the same pod and as the old hooker curtsied to the swell coming in past Cuttyhunk and with every stitch of canvas set, I studied the crew and the men with whom I was to be shipmates for the best part of the year.
The hands were apparently no better and no worse than the average crew of a Yankee whaleship. A few real seamen, old hands who had cruised for sperm in the Atlantic, had sought bowheads in the arctic, had sweltered under the glazing equatorial sun of the South Seas and had hunted right whales in far-off Bering Sea. Tanned, leather-faced, hairy-chested old whalemen rated as boatsteerers and seamen—fourteen in all. In addition there was the cooper, a wizened old Irishman; the blacksmith, a dour faced, black bearded giant; the carpenter, a slouching, raw boned Swede; and the steward and cook—the former Madeira Negro, the latter a yellow skinned mongrel of uncertain lineage with the eyes of a Mongolian, the features of a Kanaka and a kink in his hair that bespoke the African. Then there were the greenies, human derelicts picked up at random—ragged, sallow, hollow cheeked—the flotsam and jetsam of parks and gutters who didn’t know a belaying pin from a main yard, but who were destined to have knowledge come to them through the persuasive arguments of a rope’s end and the eloquent profanity of the second and third mates who were Azore Island Portugees. This unpleasant duty of hazing the greenies should have, by rights, been mine in virtue of my status as mate; but before signing on I had flatly declined the job and had made it clearly understood that I was following my doctor’s orders in taking the cruise and that, by no stretch of the imagination, could breaking in the greenies be considered an occupation free from mental worry.
But I have yet to mention the most important personage on the Beluga, the skipper. Captain Lemuel Dexter was as different from the popular conception of a Yankee whaleship captain as it is possible to imagine. A short, rotund, red faced fellow with puffy cheeks, a double chin, nondescript grizzled sandy hair and clean shaven skin covered with a network of purple-red veins. His eyes, watery blue and protruding, had a curious expression—a sort of fixed, unwinking stare, reminding me of the glass eyes of a china doll—and his voice was low, deep and had a remarkable sound as though gurgling up through a cask of oil. He was something of a dandy too, wore a spick and span suit of blue serge, was given to gaudy shirts and flamboyant ties, affected low, pumpkin colored shoes and rainbow tinted socks, and always wore a gold watch guard, large enough for a fluke chain, across his paunch.
His personality was not one which would have attracted me; in fact, under ordinary circumstances, he would have been offensive, but needs must when the devil drives and Nye had assured me he was a competent skipper, an old whaleman and by no means a brutal bully such as are too often found among men of his calling. I had met him but twice before boarding the Beluga, but even on such short acquaintances I had learned a bit of his character and close association for the weeks and months that followed bore out my first impressions and taught me much which I had never suspected.
I have never met such a superstitious man. To him, everything, each and every event, the most casual happenings, the most ordinary occurrences, held a meaning, a foreboding of evil or a promise of good luck, and for hours at a time, he would drone on with his greasy voice, relating stories of the evil eye, of the fate that had befallen those who scoffed at signs, of supernatural occurrences and of inexplicable happenings.
Not only did he believe implicitly in all the ordinary seaman’s superstitions, such as the dire results of a bos’n bird alighting on a ship, sharks following in the wake, a black cat aboard, shooting stars, St. Elmo’s fire, Mother Carey’s chickens, et cetera, but in addition, he was chockablock with outlandish beliefs he had picked up in foreign lands. He had been to sea all his life and wherever he had touched he had collected the local superstitions, much as others collect curios or postage stamps. He was as versed in the uncanny beliefs of the Orientals as in the voodoo of the Africans, the taboo of the South Seas or the obi of the West Indian Negroes and every one of them was, to him, as much gospel truth as the Scriptures.
In addition, he was sickeningly conceited, self opinionated and self sufficient. Like many ignorant and vulgar men he had formed an opinion on every question, he held that he was right and any one who differed with him was absolutely wrong, and he would fly into a towering rage if a person dared argue with him or express an opinion not in strict accord with his own. While, at times, it made me flush with anger and I had an almost overpowering desire to express my ideas of his self-conceit and arrogant manner, I realized that it would only make for unpleasantness so I held my tongue and kept my opinions to myself.
But, as Nye had said, he was not brutal nor a bully, although, as I judged from the expression on his loose lipped mouth, there was a streak of latent cruelty in his make-up and I wondered how he could ever have chosen whaling as a life work or could succeed, for I knew that he was an arrant coward at heart—despite his boastful stories of his bravery, and that he was yellow clear through.
But I soon found that in spite of all his shortcomings Captain Dexter was skilled navigator, a splendid seaman and an accomplished whaleman.
There is little need to describe the daily events that occurred upon the Beluga. As soon as we were out of soundings the training of the green hands began. The men were summoned to the waist of the ship, the mates gave them a harangue as to the work and duties expected of them and then ordered the rascals into the rigging. It was fair weather, the bark was almost motionless, but then the wretches glanced up at the lofty trucks cutting wide arcs across the sky as the Beluga rolled gently to the swell, their faces paled, their eyes rolled wildly and they hung back.
With a curse and a swinging rope’s end the Portuguese mates leaped toward them. Like frightened rats the fellows scuttled toward the shrouds, seized the ratlines and took a few steps upward. But there they stopped, cowering, nauseated, and in deadly terror. The swishing rope’s end and the raised belaying pin were even more terrifying than the rigging above, however, and clinging to the shrouds like limpets to a rock they slowly wormed their way toward the crosstrees. One or two, who lagged, felt a taste of the rope or a rap with the belaying pin across their shins, but eventually all managed to get aloft. But it was days before they could be forced higher than the lower mast cap or out on the swaying yards and a few, as always, proved physically and mentally incapable of doing so and were—reluctantly on the part of the mates—put to deck work.
Meanwhile they were trained to handle the boats and this, in comparison to going aloft, was pure enjoyment and the men took to it with a will.
Each day when the weather was fine the yards were backed, the bark was hove-to and the boats lowered. Then, under the mates’ guidance, the greenhands were ordered to take the oars and row. At first their efforts were ludicrous, for they had never handled an oar in their lives and the long ash sweeps were inextricably mixed, the fellows caught crabs, and tumbled about and even the olive skinned mates joined in the merriment at the greenies’ efforts. Soon, however, they learned to handle the oars and pull in unison and before the Azores were reached the men were accomplished oarsmen and enjoyed nothing more than racing across the sparkling sea in the speedy whaleboats.
Twice, too, the cry of “She blows!” had come from the lookouts on the to’gallant crosstrees and the boats had gone in on whales. Both were small sperms, neither yielding over forty barrels, and as the Beluga was furnished with darting guns and bomb lances there was little sport and less danger in capturing or killing the creatures.
Touching at the Azores, we secured fresh fruits and vegetables, live fowls, water and a half a dozen mulatto hands and then headed west by south. There were plenty of whales—they had not been hunted for years to any extent on the account of the war, and almost daily the black smoke arose from the try-works and the staccato exhaust of the motor echoed over the seas as the great reeking strips of blubber were hoisted in. The Beluga smelled to high Heaven of burning cracklings, oil and decaying meat, while night after night the bug light glowed and lit sea and smoke-stained sails with its fitful red glare.
It was hard, dirty work, but healthful, and already I felt my strength and health returning. Little mentality was needed—it was a life of physical labor, of tired muscles recuperating in dreamless sleep, of the tang of salt spray, of whipping winds with plenty of good food, even though it was a bit rough and coarse.
The crew were willing, apparently content and were kept too busy to grumble even had there been cause. The skipper wore a ceaseless, self satisfied smile; the mates had no reason to resort to belaying pins or ropes’ ends and the Beluga was, in short, a happy ship, taking it all in all.
Thus matters had gone for two months. We had cruised back and forth between the Bermudas and the Azores, we had crisscrossed the Atlantic from the Canaries to the Carribbees and hundreds of casks of oil and spermaceti were stowed in the hold. Then, one morning, as the Beluga wallowed eastward under tops’ls and to’gallants’ls, a cry rang from the lookout that brought all hands to the rails with a rush.
“Ship’s boat two p’ints off port bow!” was the shout from aloft.
A boat adrift in midocean means but one thing—tragedy, suffering, usually death, and as the Beluga bore down toward that tiny black speck, rising one moment upon the dazzling rim of the sea against the rising sun, next instant dropping from sight in the trough of the sea, men and officers alike strained their eyes to penetrate the blinding glare; wondering what the cockleshell held, speculating on whether it contained gruesome corpses or living beings.
But we were not long left in doubt. Something white fluttered above the boat’s side and a moment later a figure rose in view, wildly waving its arms, and then sank once more from sight. A cheer rose from the men’s throats, for the castaway still lived and presently the Beluga’s yards swung with creaking blocks and flapping canvas and as she rose and fell, drifting slowly to leeward, a boat was lowered and went speeding across the waves to the rescue.
As we drew alongside I grasped the derelict’s rail and looked in. Stretched on the bottom of the boat, her head pillowed on a man’s coat, her face framed in masses of golden-bronze hair, was a woman—scarcely more than a girl—while huddled near the stern, his head resting on a thwart and a white rag still grasped in his limp hand, was a man of about my own age.
Leaping into the craft, I turned toward the woman. But the sound of my clattering footsteps had aroused her. Her eyes—even then I was struck by their beauty—were wide open, a look of wonder in their depths; her lips parted and with an effort she sat up, her hair falling about her shoulders in a cloud of spun gold.
“Oh, thank God! Thank God!” she cried. Then her eyes taking on a frightened, horrified expression as she peered past me and saw the limp, huddled form of her companion. “Is—is he dead?” she wailed. “Have you come too late to save him?”
Quickly I turned and grasping the man’s wrist laid my ear to his chest.
“No, miss,” I assured her. “He’s alive. Close shave though.”
Drawing a flask which I had brought I poured a stiff dose of brandy and forced it between the unconscious man’s lips. A little tremor ran through him and seizing a pannikin of water from one of my men I let it trickle down the castaway’s throat. Then I handed the cup to the girl who had been staring with expectant eyes as I worked, and eagerly she drained it.
“He’ll soon come around,” I assured her as I ordered my men to lift the unconscious fellow into our boat.
“Come, miss, let me lift you in?”
“I think, I think I can manage,” she smiled, rising slowly and grasping my arm for support.
The next instant she gave a little gasp and went limp and white. She was a mere child in weight, and lifting her in my arms I stepped across the gunwales into the whaleboat. But even in that instant, even with my mind filled with the rescue, with the need of speed and the responsibility upon me, a strange thrill ran through me at the touch of her body, at the thought that it had fallen to my lot to save her from an awful fate.
And as the boat pulled swiftly back toward the Beluga, hearing the two castaways who had been so close to death, there on the pitiless sea, I gazed fascinated at the form of the girl resting unconscious beside me with her head against my shoulder and her silken, golden hair shimmering over my rough, salt stained garments. Wan, haggard, with deep purple circles beneath the eyes closed by lids that seemed transparent, yet even so, she was wondrously beautiful and I marvelled that an all merciful God could permit such a delicate, beauteous creature to suffer and endure as she had done.
To her companion I gave little heed. There was nothing I could do to help him until we reached the bark and I knew that he would pull through and in a few days would be none the worse for his experience. He was a powerfully built fellow—tall, broad shouldered and well set up, and although emaciated and pale from days adrift in an open boat and while his face was covered with a rough stubble of beard, I could see that he was a good looking chap with dark thick hair, smooth bronzed skin and clear cut features.
He was clad in soiled white duck trousers and an undershirt—the white flag he had waved with his final effort accounted for his shirt—and his flannel coat had been used as a pillow for the girl. Something about him bespoke a sailor and mentally I placed him as an officer of the ship which had been lost. But all these were fleeting impressions, for my thoughts were all of the girl who still remained senseless and though I could see her breast rise and fall slightly and knew she still lived, yet I feared that we had come too late, that her frail body had been strained beyond the limit of endurance and that she had not enough vitality to recover.
Never had a boat seemed to move so slowly. Each time we rose on the crest of a sea the bark seemed still afar off and I cursed each succeeding wave that appeared to set us back. But at last we were alongside and in the lee of the wall sided hull and, running close in, the men seized the dangling falls. They sprang out and an instant later the boat with its unconscious burdens was hoisted to the davits.
“Ah, a good deed!” exclaimed the captain as he peered into the boat. “A truly Christian act, Mr. Frazer. But I knew it! Yes, sir, I always dream true, and two nights ago I dreamed most vividly—most vividly, Mr. Frazer, of plucking an apple and a peach from the broken bough of a tree. An omen, sir, a forewarning, though I did not at the time understand its significance.”
I muttered something—I cannot say what, and paying no heed to his nonsensical ravings lifted the girl from the boat and bore her to the cabin, ordering the men to bring the unconscious man. There was a spare berth and in this I deposited my lovely burden.
Telling the men to place the other castaway in my own room, I bawled to the cook to hurry with hot broth and coffee and commenced chafing and rubbing the girl’s cold hands. Presently the fat jowls of Captain Dexter appeared in the doorway.
“Ah, ha!” he exclaimed, rubbing his pudgy hands together, “not an unpleasant occupation, Mr. Frazer. But if I’m not mistaken the duty of resuscitating devolves upon the master of the ship. Possibly your services would be more valuable with the other survivor.”
Entering the room, he motioned me aside, seated himself beside the bunk, with legs widespread, as was necessary in his case and, with his fat red hands, commenced patting and smoothing the satin-white skin of the girl. Something about his manner made my blood boil. There was the look of a caress in his touch, an expression I had never seen before was in his poppy eyes and on his sensual mouth, and I realized with a start that the old villain was fairly gloating over the lovely being before him.
At that moment I could have struck him down, but he was the captain. To interfere would mean only sharp words and perhaps worse, and clenching my fists to control my anger and vowing to see that no harm came to the girl through the superstitious old hypocrite who was in command, I ducked into my own berth and devoted myself to the man.
It was not long before he came around and after his first surprised glance about, his lips moved and I bent low to catch the words which were hardly more than a whisper. “Is she safe?” he begged. “Was Marion saved?”
“Yes,” I answered with a little twinge at my heart, “she’s safe—in the next cabin. She’ll be all right soon.”
“Thank God!” he mumbled and then, with a satisfied sign closed his eyes.
I bit my lips. He had called her Marion. Evidently she was closer than a mere friend. What was their relationship? Were they man and wife, lovers, brother and sister? And a strange feeling of relief ran though me as I remembered she wore no wedding ring. Then I laughed, a short, dry, mirthless laugh. What did it matter to me anyway? What right had I to give it a thought? I was in no position to think of love or marriage—even if by some miracle the girl should look upon me with favour, and, Lord! She had not even regained consciousness yet and here I was feeling jealous of a half dead shipwrecked man who might be only a friend or a blood relation and falling head over heels in love with an unknown woman I had helped rescue from a drifting boat.
The man was sleeping, breathing regularly and this was the best thing in the world for him. He had swallowed a cupful of broth and time and rest were what he needed now. So, rising, I stepped to the door of the other cabin. As I peered in the captain straightened up suddenly and it seemed to me there was a guilty, angry, surprised expression on his face and it flashed across me that the cowardly fellow had actually kissed that helpless, unconscious girl before him.
“Ah, Mr. Frazer,” he gurgled in that oily voice I hated so. “A very severe case, I fear. The—er—young lady has not regained consciousness. How, by the way, is the—er—other patient?”
“All right, sir,” I replied curtly, biting my lips to keep back my thoughts. “Let me attend to the young lady, sir. I have some knowledge of such matters and merely sitting beside her will accomplish nothing.”
Very reluctantly he arose, but remained standing in the doorway, staring at me as though suspecting I would take the same cowardly and blackguardly advantage of the girl as himself.
But I cared not a whit what he thought or where he was and my every effort and thought was devoted to bringing the helpless girl out of her coma. Hot broth, coffee and brandy at last told and with a long moanlike sigh she once more opened those wonderful gray eyes and my heart skipped a beat at the smile of gratitude and recognition she gave me.
“Ah, congratulations!” exclaimed the skipper as he saw she was conscious. “Permit me, miss, to wish you a quick recovery.”
As he spoke, he advanced toward the girl, bowing and smiling and smirking and to my eyes looking like an overgrown, bloated old toad.
The girl’s eyes turned toward him at his words and in them I though I detected a fleeting look of repugnance. But it may have been imagination, for she smiled and whispered something of thanks and that she would be quite all right soon.
At this moment the steward entered with a steaming bowl of broth and the captain, either because there was no space for his fat person in the cabin, or because he realized that as commander he should be on deck, left the room and stumped off through the main cabin and up the companionway.
Before his footsteps had ceased to echo through the cabin the girls’ lips framed a question. “Who is that creature?” she whispered.
“The captain,” I replied. “Captain Dexter.”
“Oh!” she breathed, “I thought you—.”
“No, I’m only the mate,” I answered. “And not a real mate at that. On the cruise for my health. But you must not talk. Just rest for a bit.”
She nodded in acquiescence and then again whispered a question. “Tell me, is—is Don all right?”
“Yes, yes,” I assured her. “Sleeping soundly. He’ll be in to see you by tomorrow. Now shut your eyes and sleep like a good girl.”
With a smile she obeyed and closed her eyes like a child. For a few moments I lingered and then, feeling certain she was sleeping, I stole from the cabin.
Some one, I realized, must remain on watch below in case either of the castaways should wake and need attention. But my duties were on deck for the next two hours of my watch and I could not remain. There were none of the crew I could trust, but there was the ship’s boy—a stocky San Blas Indian and I knew his race well enough to know there was not the least danger in leaving him on guard. Stepping through the forward companionway I glanced about and found Bob, as we called him, chatting with the mongrel yellow cook at the galley. Calling him I gave him directions, told him to notify me instantly if either of the two waked and feeling satisfied, went on deck, leaving stolid-faced Bob squatted on the floor between the two cabins.
By the following morning the two castaways were well on the road toward complete recovery from the hardships and sufferings they had endured. The man, Donald Chadwick was his name, managed to come on deck, though still weak, while the girl was able to sit up and seemed to be gaining strength and health rapidly.
Chadwick gave us the story of their plight. He was, as I had surmised, a seaman, master of a British steamer, the Dartmouth, bound from Plymouth via Mediterranean ports to Rio. Five days before we sighted his boat the Dartmouth had driven full tilt onto a water logged derelict at dead of night, and had gone down within ten minutes. Two of the boats had been stove in in launching and the remaining members of the crew—Greeks and Italians—had rushed the third boat, deserting Chadwick and his sister, who refused to leave him, to their fate. A fourth boat, the captain’s gig, was still at the falls and by almost superhuman efforts the captain and his sister had succeeded in lowering this in safety and in getting clear just as the ship went down.
And with the knowledge that the girl I had saved was Chadwick’s sister a great wave of joy surged through me, for despite my efforts and my futile attempts to argue with myself, I was hopelessly, madly in love, and throughout the long night I had suffered agonies of mind at the thought that Marion might be Chadwick’s wife or sweetheart.
That she might have a lover at home in England or that she might fail to care in the least for me troubled me not at all. I loved her and even though she never returned my love I was happy, and the sea sparkled with a deeper indigo, the sky seemed a brighter blue and even the dirty old Beluga appeared a thing of beauty as I stamped up and down the deck, madly impatient for the end of my watch and a chance to dash below for a word and a smile from the golden haired girl in the cabin.
I had no fears that the skipper would molest her or force his unwelcome attentions upon her, for her brother had remained but a few moments on deck and was now below with her and I could hear his voice coming faintly to me as I passed and repassed the companionway.
As the bell tolled out the eight strokes that marked the end of my watch, and the second mate came aft, I rushed below, blushing and trembling like a schoolgirl, and knocked timidly upon the door frame of Marion’s cabin. Chadwick’s voice replied and at his cheery “Come in,” I entered.
If I had thought her beautiful before I fairly gasped as I looked at her now. The color had come back to her cheeks and lips, her eyes sparkled and her glorious hair was braided and hung over her shoulders in heavy ropes of gold.
I stammered a few words of greeting and my head reeled at the smile she gave me.
“Oh, you’re Mr. Frazer—the man who saved us!” she cried in her low, full throated voice. “Don was just telling me of you. Oh, how can we ever thank you?”
As she spoke she held out her hand and I trembled as I took it. “It was only by good luck that I was the chosen one,” I managed to reply. “It might have been one of the Portuguese or any one else just as well. Really, Miss Chadwick, the chap aloft is the one responsible for your rescue. I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you getting on so well.”
She uttered a low rippling laugh. “I’m glad it was not—.”
“Hush, sis!” Chadwick warned her.
“The skipper?” I suggested, finishing her sentence.
She nodded. “Ugh!” she exclaimed, shrugging her pretty shoulders.
Chadwick turned the conversation into other channels. “I suppose there’s little chance of being put ashore for some time,” he said. “I don’t imagine Captain Dexter will care to run to port merely to accommodate a couple of castaways.”
“I can’t say,” I replied, unable to keep my eyes from Marion. “It wouldn’t be much of a run to Funchal or to Barbados. We’re about midway between the two. Have you spoken to him about it?”
“No,” replied Chadwick. “I thought I’d let him suggest something. Perhaps he hopes to sight a ship and transfer us.”
“Little chance of that,” I declared. “We’re out of the steamer lanes, you know.”
“But I don’t mind staying here for a time,” said Marion, bestowing a smile and a glance upon me which I, in my conceit, wanted to believe had a meaning. “We mustn’t expect the captain to inconvenience himself or to interrupt his work for us, you know.”
“A whaleship’s no place for a lady,” I said. “The food’s coarse—though there are dainties and wines in the captain’s stores, there’s no woman to look after your wants and you have no idea of the odors and filth when we take a whale.”
“Oh, but I’d love dearly to see a whale taken!” cried Marion, “and I can get on very well with the food and even the odors. Almost anything would be a delight after our terrible experience in that boat.”
“Yes, yes, sis,” asserted her brother. “But a little of it will go a long way. Besides, I’m naturally anxious to report to the owners.”
“Ah, ha! Having a little party I see,” interrupted the captain as the fat figure filled the doorway. “My compliments to you, my dear Miss Chadwick, at your rapid recovery and er—ah—charming appearance.”
Marion blushed and I could swear a shudder ran over her, but she managed to glance up and smile. “Thank you, captain,” she replied. “I’m really feeling quite strong and hope to be on deck this afternoon. We were just discussing the chances of meeting a ship or being put ashore.”
“Tut, tut!” cried the skipper, throwing up his red, pudgy hands in protest. “Are you so uncomfortable here that you wish to desert so soon? I am honoured by your presence, I assure you. But of course—er—ahem! —I shall do my utmost to put you safely on dry land at the earliest moment. In the meantime the ship and myself are at your disposal. Whaleships are not totally destitute of accommodations, Miss Chadwick, and I have ordered the steward to break out wines and—er—a few dainties to tempt your appetite, my dear young lady. I am, as you might say—er—rather an epicure myself and I flatter myself upon my knowledge of vintages and—er—viands. Ah, yes, we will assuredly kill the fatted calf in honor of the presence of such a charming if—er—accidental and unexpected visitor.”
Throughout his longwinded speech the old villain was ogling Marion, his pop eyes deliberately traveling up and down her form from head to foot, in a way so offensive that the poor girl was scarlet.
Chadwick too noticed it and I could see a flash of dull red rise on the back of his bronzed neck and the knuckles of his hands whiten as he gripped the arm of the chair in which he sat. But he realized that they were in no position to resent the captain’s manner, especially as he had done or said nothing tangible at which offense could be taken, and with a mumbled, “Thanks,” he turned his back on the skipper and kept his gaze fastened on his sister, who smiled wanly.
“I suggested,” I broke in, addressing the captain, “that it would not be a long run or much out of our way to Funchal or Barbados.”
Captain Dexter turned his head slowly toward me and stared at me with a strange expression. His lips tightened and his pale-blue eyes seemed cold as marbles of ice; but when he spoke there was no trace of anger or resentment in his oily tones.
“Quite true, Mr. Frazer,” he purred. “Quite true. But it is usually the commander’s privilege to decide when and where he shall make port.”
Turning, he marched off without another word.
“Cheerful old rotter you’ve got for a skipper,” muttered Chadwick. “By glory, if he looks like that at you again, sis, I’ll knock that smirk off his bally face—captain or no captain!”
“Oh, do be careful, Don!” begged Marion. “Perhaps it’s just his way and he means nothing by it. What sort of man is he, Mr. Frazer?”
In a few words I told them my opinion of the captain.
“H’m!” remarked Chadwick. “Well, perhaps it’s because he’s a born cad and doesn’t know better and I suppose he’s never had much experience with decent girls. Besides,” he added with a chuckle, “I don’t blame him so much—you’re a sight to make any one stare, you know, Marion.”
“Don!” begged his sister. “You forget Mr. Frazer’s here.”
“Not a bit of it!” declared Chadwick. “I’ll bet he’s staring too!”
I flushed scarlet. “Not offensively I hope, at any rate,” I made bold to burst out.
Marion’s eyes fell. “I think you’re perfectly horrid, Don,” she said.
At this moment the steward announced that dinner was served and Marion begged to be excused, saying she would have a very light meal brought to her, and Chadwick and I went to the table.
The skipper was in high good humor, although I thought a bit disappointed when Chadwick said Marion would remain in the cabin, and throughout the meal he kept up a constant stream of conversation, mostly anecdotes in which he figured as the hero or dissertations on omens and premonitions.
Chadwick, I could see, was bored, but he did his best to appear attentive and replied with noncommittal answers to the captain’s questions as to his opinions.
I was glad when the meal was over and I saw with satisfaction that Chadwick went back to his sister’s side. As I entered my berth to catch a few winks he stepped across and entered.
“I don’t like to leave Marion alone with that rotter of a skipper,” he remarked in lowered tones. “I can count on you, can’t I, Frazer, to see that he doesn’t force himself on her?”
I held out my hand and as he gripped it firmly and we gazed into each other’s eyes there was no need for words. “Any time you want some one to be on watch and you or I cannot be there, call Bob,” I said. “He’s a San Blas Indian and trustworthy. Moreover,” I added in a whisper,” he has no love for the captain.”
“Thanks, old man!” said Chadwick earnestly. “I shan’t worry when Marion’s able to be up and about and has her strength back. She can take care of herself and even that old toad of a skipper of yours would hardly attempt to carry things too far. I know his kind. He thinks himself a lady killer and he’ll ogle and try to flatter and make himself obnoxious, but nothing more.”
I nodded. “It’s just his superlative self conceit,” I said. “He no doubt acts the same toward every pretty woman he meets, but I don’t think he means as much as you might think and your sister is perfectly safe—if she can stand for his stares and his vulgar compliments.”
“Right!” agreed Chadwick. “Well, beggars can’t be choosers and we’ll have to put up with it and thank Heaven we’re on a ship of any kind.”
But Marion was not compelled to “put up” with the skipper again that day, for soon after my conversation with her brother a small school of whales was sighted, the boats went in, and even Captain Dexter took charge of one boat. That the fat, paunchy, full blooded reprobate could handle a steering oar or a darting gun seemed ridiculous, but to my amazement he was as skilful, as alert and as lively as any of the men. In fact his boat was first in on the whales and his capture was “fin up” before any one else.
When we returned to the Beluga, with four small sperms, I found Marion on deck, for the excitement of the boats being lowered and the chase was too much for her and seated in a chair in the shadow of the spare boats she had watched the hunt from the start.
“Oh, I wouldn’t have missed it for anything!” she cried, her lips parted and her eyes wide. “It was wonderful and exciting!”
“Ah, I presume you were watching me, Miss Chadwick!” exclaimed the captain, puffing himself out as he stood before her. “I flatter myself that there are few my equal in darting an iron or making a kill. But this is tame sport, my dear young lady. You should see a real battle with the monster of the deep—you should see me throw the old style iron and kill with the hand lance.”
“Perhaps I may have that pleasure,” she replied quietly, but with no enthusiasm in her voice.
“I pledge myself that you shall!” declared the skipper. “The very next whale that we raise I shall attack myself, armed only with the time honoured weapons of the old school of which I am a graduate. That is,” he added, glancing nervously about, “provided no omens of ill luck should make themselves apparent before. I am sure you are a believer in signs and premonitions, are you not, Miss Chadwick?”
“I really don’t know,” she replied. “I don’t like to break a mirror and I never walk under a ladder if I can avoid it. I suppose we all have our pet superstitions.”
The captain snorted. “Superstitions!” he exploded. “Miss Chadwick, I am amazed, astonished that a charming young lady of such rare intelligence should look upon the mysterious workings of unknown powers as superstition. Why, my dear—er—girl, if I may presume to thus address you, this very morning a land bird, a—er—sparrow I think it was, alighted upon the ship’s rail. Instantly I knew that ere the day was done we should have good luck. Indeed, I may go even further. The bird flew off and returned to the ship four times. And now, as you see, we have four whales. The evidence is, I think, indisputable.”
Chadwick laughed. “That’s good!” he cried. “I suppose the bally birdie had sighted the whales and flew over here to tip you off, eh? Then, no doubt, he flitted ahead of the whales and led them to you! Why, man, I’ve had birds light on my ships endless times, and we were not whalers.”
Captain Dexter glared at the speaker and I thought for an instant he would burst. His eyes seemed about to pop from their sockets, the veins on his face swelled and grew purple, he swallowed rapidly and there was an ugly curl to his lips. For a moment he stood staring and then: “Sir!” he exclaimed, striving to shout, but sounding as if he were choking on a lump of grease. “Sir, you forget you are here on sufferance and are addressing the captain of this ship. You are downright insulting and insufferable. Were it not for the presence of the young lady I should speak much more strongly. Remember henceforth to be more careful of your tongue, sir.”
Before Chadwick could utter a word he strode off, but from that moment he hated Chadwick as the devil hates holy water.
Captain Dexter made no attempt to conceal his ill feeling toward Chadwick. His vanity had been hurt by the Englishman’s scoffing remark and, moreover, he was disgruntled at Chadwick’s constant presence with Marion. He never greeted him when the two met; at table he ignored him and addressed all his remarks to Marion or myself and he rudely contradicted anything that Chadwick said. The Englishman, however, controlled his temper—though at times I saw him bite his lip and his face flushed at some particularly maddening remark or action of the skipper, and an open rupture might have been avoided if it had not been for the captain’s overtures toward Marion.
Chadwick remained with her as much as possible and I, of course, seized every opportunity to be near her. Very often we paced the deck together and I wished fervently that my watch was eight hours long instead of four when, in the soft tropic night with the brilliant stars in the velvet sky and a broad wake of molten silver streaming astern, we stood by the rail gazing across the vast restless sea and I looked into her starry eyes and drank in her words until my head swam as though I were half intoxicated.
And when, in her enthusiasm, she would lay her tiny hand upon my arm or a wisp of her spun gold hair would be wafted against my cheek, I trembled as with an attack of my old fever.
That Marion was fond of my company I could not doubt, though truth to tell I did not dare delude myself with the thought that her interest was more than that for a friend and a companion with whom she could talk without fear of being insulted, for whenever I appeared she had a ready welcoming smile and her eyes lit up. Chadwick, too had taken a vast liking to me and often the three of us would walk the decks together, chatting of distant lands and out-of-the-world places, for, like myself, he had been something of a wanderer and was passionately fond of the tropics and of strange people and exploration. But all this, though so pleasant to me, and, I believe, to the others, only made the skipper hate Chadwick the more and his ill feelings included me as well. Unlike Chadwick, however, I was essential to him and the ship, for the second mate was an indifferent navigator, and he could not ignore me as he could the Englishman. I could see, however, that he regarded me with disfavor and the more he did so the more I devoted myself to the girl I loved so deeply and passionately, for it was evident that his jealousy meant that the conceited old ass wished more opportunities to force his unwelcome attentions on Marion.
The poor girl was in a sad predicament. She was, in a way, the guest of the captain and could not openly resent his overtures or show her true feelings toward him and for hours at a time she was forced to listen to his purring oily voice as he seated himself beside her or invited her to join him in a stroll on the quarter deck. It fairly made my blood boil to hear the repulsive fellow paying the girl coarse vulgar compliments or see him leering at her with his pop-eyed, loose lipped face and Chadwick inwardly raged and fumed. But a mate could scarcely remonstrate with his commander under such circumstances, and Marion begged her brother not to say or do anything to increase the captain’s hatred toward him or to bring on an open hostility.
It was not so bad when Chadwick was on deck or when my watch kept me in their presence, but thoughts of what was taking place above kept sleep from my eyes when I was off duty and I was rapidly becoming nervous, haggard, and on edge. Often I smiled grimly as I thought of my object in taking this cruise with its freedom from mental worry, as the doctor had put it, for never in my life had I worried more.
Moreover, the skipper showed no intention of putting into port to land his involuntary guests. Marion mentioned it once or twice but each time the skipper avoided a direct reply or a definite promise.
“Tut, tut!” he would say. “Are you not enjoying yourself, my dear young lady? Really my—er—dear, this life is doing you a world of good. You are daily becoming more—er—beautiful. You are a delight to the—er—eye and a fascination to the—er—senses. Would you rob a lonely sailor of the—er—pleasure of such a charming presence? But I assure you Miss—er—Marion, that we are making for port. The Beluga is, as you know, no ocean greyhound and a few weeks must elapse ere we sight land and I gaze with sorrow upon the departure of one whom I had—er—well—er—hoped, well—er—whom I had been led to believe by certain omens and signs might—er—well, let us enjoy ourselves while we may and sip what—er—drops of nectar the fates see fit to bestow upon us.”
And daily his innuendos became more thinly veiled, his attentions more bold, and his ogling more offensive. He would hitch his chair closer and closer to hers, he would lean toward her, leering at her with his ugly purple-veined face close to hers; he would surreptitiously press his knees against her limbs and would even have the devilish impudence to lay his fat paws upon her dainty hand and pat her wrist caressingly.
To me, who loved Marion with all my heart and soul and with the purest, deepest devotion, these actions of the skipper were almost beyond endurance and at last I blurted out my feelings to Marion as we stood leaning upon the taffrail one evening.
And then the world seemed to whirl about me, the stars danced in the sky and my heart throbbed until it sounded like the thrashing of a ship’s screw, for at my words Marion had looked into my eyes with an expression I had never seen before and timidly but with infinite tenderness she placed her hand on mine with a caressing little squeeze.
“I know—Rodney,” she half whispered. “I know how you feel, but you must be brave and bear it—just as I do. I don’t think he—he really means to be rude or to trouble me. It’s just that he doesn’t know any better. Please don’t do anything rash—for my sake—dear.”
Out of my world went sea and ship. Nothing mattered now. Through me surged a wondrous joy such as I had never known and had never hoped to know. Only one thought filled my brain. Marion loved me—the impossible had come to pass. Trembling I stretched out my arms and pressed her yielding form against my breast and as her upturned eyes gazed into mine with infinite yearning in their depths our lips met.
The next morning I told Chadwick. For a space he looked at me with a serious expression in his eyes and then he smiled and reached out his hand. “Ripping!” he exclaimed heartily. “You have my blessing and congratulations, old man. Not that it makes a bally mite of difference as far as Marion’s concerned—she’d have her own way anyhow. But I couldn’t ask for a brother-in-law I’d rather have. I’ll have to congratulate Marion too.”
But the very joy of my knowledge that Marion loved me and that she was mine made it all the harder to stomach the skipper’s attitude. Only the thought that it would make it harder for Marion enabled me to hold my tongue and keep my peace, but I watched and guarded my sweetheart more closely than ever and was continually racking my brain for excuses to call the captain away whenever he seated himself beside Marion or asked her for a stroll.
And, as is often the case with men of his type, the skipper became more and more obsessed with his superstitious ideas as he found himself balked by the presence of Chadwick and myself. Gradually, too, I could see that he was neglecting the ship and the search for whales and that he was forcing more and more duties upon me and the other mates. All his thoughts were centered upon Marion, for which I could not blame him, and he grew morose and sullen, pacing the deck and muttering to himself when she was not about or when she was with Chadwick or myself.
Bob, the San Blas boy, had become a sort of personal servant of Marion’s and her brother. He looked after Marion’s room, served at the table and was, I could see, devoted to her. Probably she was the first person who had ever taken any interest in him and, like all his race, he had formed a doglike attachment for the ones who gave him a kind word and a friendly smile. He would squat motionless on the deck, gazing up at Marion and her brother with a pleading, worshiping expression in his beady brown eyes, but the instant Captain Dexter would approach her the eyes would narrow, the lips would draw back and the broad brown face would take on the look of a savage.
That he detested the skipper I knew—though why I had no idea—and the captain’s attentions to Marion added to the smoldering hate in his primitive heart. Although always peaceable, good natured and friendly, yet the San Blas Indians are implacable enemies and fiends when their latent savage nature is aroused; and although nominally civilized and while most of them have been sailors or whalemen from time immemorial, yet they posses all the crafty cunning, the almost uncanny intuition and the silent stealth of the wild red man. Of all the nationalities who ship on Yankee whaleships, the San Blas Indians are the only ones who are seldom or never abused, and who are looked upon with respect and something of fear by the roughest bucko mates and most brutal skippers. Perhaps it is a knowledge of their reckless savage bravery when aroused, perhaps it is merely because they are quick, silent, willing hands and there is no excuse for hazing, or maybe it is a tradition handed down through centuries from the days when the San Blas shipped on buccaneers’ craft and the pirates learned to their cost that ill treatment of their red allies would result in reprisals with accompanying tortures more terrible than the most ingenious corsair could devise. But whatever the reason, the fact remains, and as I saw Bob’s expression when he watched the captain I thanked my stars I was not in the skipper’s shoes and foresaw a tragedy if the captain should see fit to include the Indian boy in his hatred of all who had Marion’s welfare at heart.
And it was not long before the skipper’s ill feelings vented themselves on Bob. It happened at dinner. The Indian boy was serving Marion and as she lifted her hands to the proffered dish the skipper slipped his paw under the table and patted her knee. With a quick breath she drew quickly away, her motion jogged Bob’s elbow and the gravy spilled upon the table. The captain, maddened at the girl’s action, leaped up, reached over and struck Bob a resounding blow across the face, sending him reeling back against the heel of the mizzenmast.
“Oh!” screamed Marion. “Oh, you—you brute!”
Springing to her feet, she threw her arms about the Indian and turned with blazing, defiant eyes to face the purple-faced, fuming captain.
“Don’t you dare!” she cried, shielding the boy with her own body.
“You cowardly cad, it was your fault. How dare you lay hands on me and then strike Bob when I jarred his arm trying to avoid your vulgar actions!”
Captain Dexter was like a maddened beast. His head sank between his shoulders, his lips drew back in a snarl, his eyes protruded and his face grew livid purple. “You pretty wildcat!” he gurgled. “I’ll—.” But he got no further. Chadwick had spring up, as had I, and before I could make a move the Englishman was standing over the skipper. His face was white, his eyes blazing and his fists clenched. I expected to see him fell the raging captain with a blow, for murder was in his face, but with a terrific effort he restrained himself.
“That’s enough!” he cried, his voice trembling with righteous rage. “You may be captain of this ship but you’re a damned rotter and an unspeakable blackguard. If you lay a finger on my sister again I’ll drive those goggle eyes of yours through the back of your fat head. Now, sit down, damn you!”
The captain, utterly flabbergasted by Chadwick’s words, stood gaping, shaking with fury, but fully realizing that the broad shouldered six footer towering above him could deal death with those half raised bony fists, and that not a soul in the room would raise a finger to help him.
Then he exploded. “You—you—,” he stuttered. “You’ll mutiny, will you, you dirty Britisher! I’ll put you where you can sputter and fume. Sister! A likely story—I can put two and—.”
I leaped on Chadwick just in time to save the skipper from the crashing blow that was aimed at his fat jowls. “No, don’t,” I shouted. “He’s not responsible.”
Chadwick struggled furiously, cursing and raging, but Marion flung herself upon him, pleading and begging and slowly he lowered his hand. “Very well,” he muttered with a harsh dry laugh. “You’ve saved the beast this time, but—.”
“Mr. Frazer, take that man forward and put him in double irons!” roared the captain. “I’ll teach him who’s master here.”
I turned on my heel. “That I will not, sir,” I declared. “Mr. Chadwick is not a member of this ship’s company. There’s a limit beyond which you can not go and moreover, Mr. Chadwick’s actions were thoroughly justified.”
The captain fairly exploded. “You cursed sea lawyer!” he cried, shaking like a huge bowl of jelly with rage. “You damned mutineer! If you don’t obey I’ll shoot you down like the dog you are.”
“Go ahead, shoot!” I snapped as the skipper reached toward his hip. “And navigate the old tub into port alone and tell your yarn to the consul with Bob and Miss Chadwick as witnesses.”
With a vile oath the captain moved his hand from his hip—empty. I turned my back deliberately on him. Marion with flushed, frightened face had retreated to the doorway of her cabin ready to seek safety from the furious skipper if necessary and Bob was skulking forward. I caught a glimpse of his face—the contorted face of a murderous savage with the gleam of a venomous snake in his eyes.
For a moment there was silence, tense, ominous. Then Chadwick laughed, a laugh not pleasant to hear, and calmly lighted a cigarette.
“I say again you’re a confounded rotter,” he remarked in even level tones. “And a cowardly yellow beast. You’re no man, and unfit to command even a stinking whaleship. You take advantage of a girl thrown by fate as a castaway upon your ship and force your disgusting attentions upon her and call the resentment of her natural protector and a gentleman mutiny! Why, you superstitious old jelly fish, you haven’t the brains of a sculpin. You’ve violated every law and courtesy and custom of the sea and you can’t any more put me in irons than you can fly. I’m no foremast hand on your wallowing old tub and you’d be under arrest for assault or worse as soon as his majesty’s consul heard the tale at the first port you touch. Go to it, you old porpoise. Put me in irons if you dare.”
Captain Dexter stared, dumbfounded at Chadwick’s words. “You think because you’re a damned lime juicer that you’re sacred, eh?” he jerked out. “We’ll see how much I care for your rum guzzling consuls or your puppy of a king. As for you, Mr. Frazer,” turning to me, “get on deck. If I were not dependent upon you as a navigator I’d have you in double irons and flogged to within an inch of your life.”
“But you are,” I sneered as I stepped to the companionway. “And you won’t!”
How far, I wondered, as I made my way to the deck, would the skipper dare go? In the heat of his passion he might take such high handed methods that Chadwick would be helpless, but I knew that even the furious skipper would realize, as he calmed down, that to take such drastic measures as he threatened—especially in view of the provocation of the Englishman—would result in legal action when the ship reached port and that with three witnesses, all of whom were his enemies, the captain would find himself in a pretty kettle of fish.
But I was not long left in doubt. Presently the captain appeared on deck, strode forward and bawled for the third mate, a boat steerer, and the blacksmith to come aft with a couple of hands. As the wondering men came aft, the skipper, still purple with rage, gave them his orders.
“Seize that blasted Englishman in the cabin and take him forward and put irons on him,” he cried.
The men gaped in wonder, hesitated and then the Portugee and the two seamen stepped into the cabin. But the big black bearded blacksmith and the grizzled boat steerer remained motionless.
“What you gaping at?” gurgled the irate skipper. “Get in there and do as I say.”
The man stepped to the rail, spat into the sea, hitched his trousers and touched his cap. “It may be mut’ny an’ then again it may not,” he said. “But mut’ny or not it’s not me as’ll be layin’ hands on a shipwrecked sailor man what’s due to be treated as such.”
“Seize him too!” screamed the skipper to the blacksmith. “There’s rank mutiny here.”
The blacksmith shook his big shaggy head and his black beard wagged like the mane of a lion. “No, sir,” he replied in his deep voice. “Ye kin iron all of us, captain, an’ call us bloody mutineers if ye’ min’ to. But we’ll no be doin’ them biddin’s. Let your dirty Portugees or yerself do your dirty work.”
The captain jerked his hand to his hip and leaped forward, but at that instant there was a yell from the cabin, a heavy thud and the Portugee mate and one of the sailors dashed from the companionway as if the devil himself were at their heels.
“Get back there!” ordered the skipper. “Can’t three of you gutter rats handle one Britisher?”
“Me, I myself, not mak to go,” stammered the swarthy third mate. “He one what you say—Diablo.”
At this instant Chadwick appeared, and involuntarily the group of men drew back. “Very well,” he said, addressing the captain. “I don’t want the crew to get into trouble on my account. I’ll go forward—but not in irons. But mark my words, you white livered old grampus, you’ll be jibbering like an idiot before you make port. You dream true, do you, and know omens and signs? Well, wait until you see some that are coming to you.”
Whether Chadwick thought to merely frighten the skipper by this childish thread, whether he knew the captain’s character so well that he felt certain the fellow would seek for the omens he mentioned and would interpret any occurrence in the way Chadwick intended, or whether he had some definite plan in view, I did not know.
But his words had more effect upon the superstitious skipper than I could have imagined possible. The color went from his face, leaving it in ghastly lavender gray, his eyes rolled and he shook as though with a chill. Then, with an oath, he whipped out a revolver and fired point blank at the back of the Englishman. But his shot went wild and with a half smothered cry the Portugee mate doubled up and slumped to the deck.
The men, shaking their fists at the captain, rushed to their fallen comrade. Marion’s scream rang from the cabin and the skipper, pocketing his gun, turned and strode aft.
“Oh, what has happened?” cried Marion, rushing up the companionway. “Did—did he shoot Don?”
“No, dearest,” I said, lowering my tones to a whisper and taking her hand.
“The men refused to obey the captain and he shot one of them—a Portugee. Go back to your cabin, dear heart, and lock the door until the captain’s calmed down. It’s the safest.”
With a trusting smile on her frightened, worried face, she turned back.
“Yes, Rod,” she said. “I’ve only you to guard me now.”
Apparently Captain Dexter had been absolutely oblivious of Marion’s presence. He stood at the after rail gazing fixedly at the sea and muttering to himself, and soon after she had gone back to her cabin he started pacing athwart the deck and I could see that he was vastly troubled. He glanced nervously about, his fingers twitched convulsively and his face was still lacking its high color. No doubt, I thought, he was worrying over the possible results of his fit of passion, or perhaps he was regretting the death of the Portugee third mate, or it might be that Chadwick’s words were on his mind. I didn’t care a jot which it was and I felt a grim sort of satisfaction in knowing he was worrying over something, no matter what.
But I too had my worries. With Chadwick in the fo’c’s’le there was no one to help me watch Marion, for I did not wish to draw Bob into the maelstrom of the skipper’s wrath again, and I knew that, if she came on deck during my watch below, the captain would take every advantage of his opportunities.
I decided that I would try to influence Marion to remain in her cabin when I was not on deck and while I realized that this would result in discomfort and that the confinement in the tiny stuffy room would be almost beyond endurance, yet it was better by far than being subjected to the captains coarse love making.
But for the rest of the day the skipper was too preoccupied with his own thoughts to pay any heed to Marion and after a time he went below and shut himself in his cabin. Then I summoned Marion and throughout the rest of the evening we were together in a perfect heaven of bliss. Also, we stole forward to visit her brother, and found him cheerfully puffing a pipe surrounded by the men in the shadow of the foresail and regaling them with yarns. He sprang up at our approach and the men, also rising, stood deferentially about.
“Hello, sis!” he greeted Marion. “And you too, old man! We did get into a bit of a bally rumpus to-day, didn’t we? But my word! I feel a lot better for it. It relieved my soul a lot to tell the old porpoise what I thought of him. Been up to any tricks since?”
A low chuckle went around the ring of men at Chadwick’s words, Evidently they had heard of what had taken place aft, for news travels swiftly and mysteriously aboard ship and the rough men were full of respect and admiration for the one who had had the temerity to express his opinion of the skipper.
Moreover, their sympathies were all with Chadwick. They knew the obligations imposed by all the traditions of the sea upon a ship’s commander as to the treatment of shipwrecked unfortunates and, like all sailors, despite their attitude toward women of their own class, they possessed an inherent respect and gallantry toward all good women.
It was fortunate indeed for Captain Dexter that Chadwick was not one of the sort to make trouble, for I could see that, had he wished, he could have started a mutiny that would have made short work of the skipper. Not that the men had been ill treated or abused, but they realized Chadwick’s superiority, knew he was a ship’s master, and would have followed him blindly, had he encouraged them, in order to right his wrongs, especially as Marion was concerned in the matter. I had not the least doubt that the men knew all about the captain’s behavior and what had brought about the trouble, although I knew Chadwick would not mention it; but I also knew that the Englishman would do all he could to prevent trouble between crew and captain rather than torment it.
All this passed through my mind while Marion and her brother were chatting. She asked if the Portugee had been killed and expressed the deepest sorrow when the men replied in the affirmative.
“Nivir ye min’, miss,” said the little Irish cooper, who perked his head on one side and peered at her like an inquisitive sparrow. “B’gorra, ‘tis betther the Portugee than Misther Cahdwick here, which ‘twere intended for, by the same token. Shure a Portugee—an’ a thurd mate at thot—is not much av a loss at all, at all.”
“Oh, but he was a man just the same,” replied Marion bestowing a smile upon the cooper that caused him to wink his keen eyes and gulp. “Poor fellow! He was innocent of any wrong.”
“Yaas,” drawled the Swedish carpenter. “But he bane gone Davy Yones yust da same. Aye tank da no good you bane sorry, mees.”
“No, don’t let that trouble you, sis,” cried her brother cheerfully. “His blood’s on the captain’s hands and I’ll wager it’ll make him worry enough for all hands.”
But we could not stay long, my duties were aft, and so, with a good night to all, we walked back to the quarter deck. I told Marion of my plans for her safety and she, dear girl, gladly agreed, saying she could be quite content with some books I had found for her and that she could be happy dreaming of the great happiness to be ours when we were once more safe ashore.
For several days thereafter nothing unusual occurred. The captain, however, was oddly preoccupied and when a white, long-tailed bos’n bird alighted on the main royal yard one morning I thought he would have a stroke of apoplexy. This, to his superstitious mind, presaged ill luck and soon after the wind fell to a flat calm and the Beluga drifted idly with flapping sails. We had sighted no whales for days, the men were uneasy and grumbled, and had it not been for Chadwick I verily believe that open mutiny would have broken out, for they had taken it into their heads that the skipper was a Jonah and a few even argued that he was insane. Chadwick, however, kept up their spirits, he worked at whatever there was to do, kept his fellows busy making chafing gear, sennet and rope work, and daily I had a long talk with him, and whenever the captain was below Marion and he were together.
Then, one day, to my intense surprise, the captain addressed me, for since the events in the cabin he had never spoken save to give me some order.
“I trust you have no ill will toward me, Mr. Frazer,” he said, in as agreeable tones as he could command. “I fear I have been a bit hasty—bad temper I have, and—er—a mate and his captain should be on good terms. Officers must stand together, you know.”
I was so taken aback by his words and manner that I barely managed to mumble a few unintelligible words. Then, grasping my arms and lowering his voice, he exclaimed, “There’s a curse hanging over this ship—a spirit, the soul of Manual, the third mate!”
I fairly gasped. “A spirit!” I stammered. “What on earth—.”
“Ssh, not so loud!” he cautioned me in a whisper and glancing nervously about. “Yes, when we buried Manual a bos’n bird hovered above and later it alighted upon the ship. His spirit took possession of the bird. It has been following us ever since. And it was on Friday the 13th, when—er—he unfortunately met his death. Ah, I know! But why should I fear the spirit of a dead Portugee?”
As he ended he uttered a low, oily laugh.
Was the man insane? Had he gone really mad from dwelling on his weird superstitions? Perhaps it was a form of monomania and he was sane in every other way, and perhaps it was merely overwrought nerves. I did not know. But I saw an opportunity to express my mind and perhaps put matters back on a proper footing.
“You never should have sent Mr. Chadwick forward, sir,” I said.
I rather expected him to fly into a fury at my words, but instead he continued in the same even tones. “Ah! That was for her good,” he declared with a tinge of sincerity in his voice. “He was trying to steal her from me. But he shall not. I shall marry her!”
“Marry Miss Chadwick!” I cried, astounded at the man’s monumental conceit and self assurance.
“Yes, yes, Mr. Frazer,” he replied, “that is my determination.”
I was too dumbfounded to be furious. “But she doesn’t love you and will refuse,” I declared, forgetting all caution in my surprise at his words.
“Tut, tut, what difference can that make,” he went on. “I am captain of this ship, supreme, omnipotent and I hold the right to perform the marriage service. Yes, I shall marry her to myself and you, Mr. Frazer, are to be the best man! That is the way to court the women, sir, taken them first and tame them after.”
The fellow smirked in a way that made me long to choke him and I could scarcely restrain my clutching fingers. But thought of Marion’s plight should he shoot me down prevented me from using violence, and moreover, I was now convinced that he had taken leave of his senses.
Before I could frame an answer or utter a word, the wind came, the sails flapped and I sprang away from the captain’s side and commenced bowling orders to the crew.
He did not mention it again and I thought it as well not to repeat his words to either Marion or her brother, for it would only add to their worries. Soon afterward the skipper went below and as I glanced into the skylight I saw him writing in his journal at the cabin table. Presently I heard a frightened cry, the sounds of a scuffle and Marion came racing up the companionway, her cheeks crimson, her eyes wide and a terrified expression on her face!
“Oh, Rod!” she panted, throwing herself at me. “I was so frightened. He—he—kissed me!”
An oath escaped my lips. “The beast!” I hissed. “You don’t mean he dared enter your cabin?”
“No—not that! she cried. “I was going through the main cabin and he was at the table and he leaped up and seized me and, oh, Rod, the look in his eyes was terrible!”
“There, there!” I said, soothingly. “He’s an unspeakable brute, but, dearest, I don’t think he’s responsible. I believe he’s insane. He imagines the spirit of the man he shot is hovering over the ship. We must be very careful, Marion my love, and you must keep out of his sight as much as possible. Where is he now?”
As I spoke I stepped to the skylight and glanced down but there was no sign of the captain and I judged that he had gone to his own cabin.
For a time the dear girls’ heart beat like a trip hammer and she breathed hard and fast, but at last she calmed down and together we paced the deck in the twilight until the steward announced that supper was ready.
“I can’t go down there with him,” declared Marion. “I really can’t, Rod.”
“I’ll be there too, sweetheart,” I said. “We must not do anything to make him even worse.”
But I had no need to try to induce Marion to go down, for the steward presently returned and said that Captain Dexter had ordered supper served in his room and so we two descended and ate alone and in peace.
The skipper did not appear again that evening and until close on to eight bells we had the deck to ourselves—hours of perfect bliss and happiness when all troubles and worries seemed far away, as in the dark shadow of the deck house Marion snuggled close to my side and I caressed her silken hair and satinlike cheek and we whispered words of love while the Beluga plunged onward through the phosphorescent sea.
I led Marion below to the cabin, kissed her a fond good night, watched until she entered her own room and blew me a kiss from her finger tips and then again went on deck. Fifteen minutes later my watch was up and silently, so as not to disturb Marion in case she slept, I stepped down the companionway. As I reached the foot of the ladder a scream rang out and with a bound I leaped forward to see the captain grasping in the knob of Marion’s door.
At sight of me he uttered a low, cackling laugh. “Ah ha!” he exclaimed. “No doubt she will open to you!”
With doubled fists raised to strike I sprang at him, but he scurried toward his own cabin and the next instant fell back against the bulkhead opposite with a gurgling, awful yell. With dilated, terrified eyes and sagging jaw he stood there, staring at the door of his room as though he had seen an apparition.
Then I was at his side and I too saw and uttered an involuntary cry of amazement.
Clearly outlined on the white panel of the captain’s door was the crimson imprint of a bloody hand!
The captain slumped like a sack of meal to the floor and I came to my senses. Flinging open the door I dragged him in, heaved him onto his bunk and went out to examine that gruesome mark upon the panel.
My first thought was that it was a practical joke, that one of the crew had painted the thing there to scare the skipper. But in a moment I knew that this could not be so. It was no painted thing, but the imprint of a real hand, and though I flatter myself that I am not nervous or superstitious I confess that little shivers ran up and down my spine as I realized this. But Marion’s frightened voice was calling and, leaving the door, I hurried to her. I thought it wise not to let her know too much and I told her the captain had stumbled against her door and had had a stroke or a fit in his own cabin. I soon quieted her, told her to lock and bolt her door and assured her that I would remain in the cabin on guard.
Then I returned to the captain’s door. That it was the impression of a hand there could be no doubt as I have said, for plainly visible were the joints of the fingers, the calloused spots at their bases, and the heel of the thumb and the lines and wrinkles of the palm. But it was not the imprint of the hand of any man upon the ship, I felt sure. It was gigantic, fully twice the size of mine and my hands are not small, and once more I felt that strange tingling of the scalp that the bravest of us feel when face to face with the inexplicable.
Even had there been any question of the fact that it had been made by a hand, no member of the crew I knew could have painted it. It would have been impossible for any one to have entered and daubed the thing upon the door without being seen and it was morally certain that it was not upon his door when the skipper left his room and made his dastardly attempt at Marion’s door. Moreover, the imprint was not made with paint. I rubbed my fingers across it, found it smeared easily and I sniffed at it; but there was not a trace of odor of paint—merely a sickish fetid smell like that of blood. It was an ugly thing and somehow, in the back of my brain, I had a feeling that somewhere, some time, I had seen a similar mark, a similar imprint of a blood-stained giant hand. But rack my memory as I might, I could not think where or when, and at last I decided I must have read some tale in which such a thing figured. Entering my own room I brought a sponge and a basin of water and wiped the uncanny thing away, but despite my every effort a broad gruesomely bloody stain remained upon the white paint.
I called the steward, told him the captain was ill and to attend to him, and seated myself at the table in the main cabin. The steward started and looked askance at the red smear on the captain’s door, but there was no indication of the uncanny hand to arouse his suspicions and he entered the room without hesitation. Soon after, I heard the sounds of his voice and the low tones of the captain and knew the latter had recovered from his shock. Presently the steward left the room, closed the door and went forward and as he did not return I assumed that he had left the captain for the night.
For hours I sat there, striving to puzzle out the affair, but no matter from what point of view I considered it or what theories I formed, I was up against a blank wall. The whole thing was a mystery from start to finish and I could find no plausible explanation to account for it. My thoughts naturally went to Chadwick, for he had hinted that the captain would see omens and signs, but I could scarcely believe that the Englishman would resort to such measures. But even assuming that he was responsible for the gruesome imprint on the door, how had he done it? I was absolutely certain that it was the impression of a real hand and that it had been made with blood and yet that hand had just as certainly never belonged to a human being and a butchery would have to have been made to provide the amount of blood used. It baffled me completely and though I scoffed mentally at the idea that it was of supernatural origin, and had no patience with the skipper’s superstitions, still I could not account for it by any natural means. At last, feeling confident that Marion slept and that she was in no danger from the captain for the rest of the night, I entered my room and turned in.
The following morning, the captain appeared on deck just before breakfast and I could see by his haggard face, the deep, puffy circles under his eyes, and the sickly appearance of his skin, that he had passed a bad night and was extremely nervous, weak and wrought up. If the bloody hand upon the door had troubled me I could well imagine that it had nearly driven him out of the little sense he had remaining.
But to my surprise he made no reference to the events of the night before, and indeed scarcely spoke to me, save to give me a curt nod and muttered “Good morning.”
At my first opportunity I went forward, drew Chadwick aside and told him of the imprint, but forebore mentioning the skipper’s attempt on Marion’s door as I knew it would merely add to his worries.
“Jove!” he exclaimed when I had related the story. “That must have been a knock out for the old beggar! Wonder who did it.”
His tones were so evidently sincere and his surprise so genuine that my half-formed suspicions were instantly cast aside. In a few words I told him of the results of my examination and my loss to find an explanation or theory.
He whistled. “By glory!” he cried. “That is a jolly mystery, old man! I’ll keep my ears and eyes open and see if I hear or see anything that sounds or looks suspicious among the men. Of course one of them did it, though how I can’t imagine.” Then, as a new thought struck him, “Too bad you wiped the bally thing off. We might have taken the hand prints of every one on board and compared them with the impression, you know.”
I shook my head. “I thought of that,” I replied, “but what’s the use? In the first place, if the men knew of the thing they’d go as crazy as the skipper. They’re a bunch of superstitions. Besides, I tell you I know it was not the mark of any hand aboard the Beluga. Why, man, it was twice the size of any human hand!”
Chadwick laughed. “Getting on your nerves, too, eh?” he said.
“Not because I believe it supernatural,” I replied. “But because I detest being up against a thing I can’t explain.”
“Righto, I know how you feel,” stated Chadwick. “Well, I’ll report if I think of anything or hear anything.”
That day we raised a medium sized sperm which we took and between the chase, the cutting in and the boiling I was too busy to give thought to the mystery on board. Marion came on deck and watched the chase and although I was off in one of the boats I had little fear of the skipper molesting her during my absence and in broad daylight on deck. He had apparently forgotten all about his bombastic declaration in regard to “going in” on the next whale with the old time weapons and stood glumly watching the work without speaking. Indeed, I believe his thoughts were entirely on the events of the preceding night and that he hardly realized what was taking place.
However, before I left, I had time to dodge below and secure a small automatic from my chest and this I slipped to Marion. “If he should try to take any advantage, this will keep him off.” I told her. “And if he goes too far don’t hesitate to use it. You’ll be perfectly justified, my dear.”
Marion shuddered a bit as her hand closed on the cold steel, but she nodded and slipped it into some hiding place in her garments.
The work of cutting in and boiling continued throughout the day and until nearly sunrise the next morning and no events worthy of recording took place.
The following day the ship was cleaned, for since Marion’s arrival on board I had made it a point to clean the old bark as well as possible after each catch, for it was bad enough for a woman at its best. The men were in excellent spirits, now that luck was once more with the ship, and even the skipper seemed to brace up. The color had come back to his cheeks, his eyes had lost their haunted look, and as the bos’n bird, which had followed us steadily ever since the burial of the third mate, had taken itself off, I presume he thought the imagined curse lifted.
After supper, Marion came on deck and as it was an oppressively hot night, despite a strong breeze, I placed a chair for her on the starboard side in the draft from the mainsail and at each turn of my march along the deck I would stop for an instant for a whispered word or a stolen caress.
The skipper was on the port side, farther aft and staring moodily out to sea and was, I thought, ignorant of Marion’s presence. At any rate, ever since the appearance of that crimsoned hand, he had paid no attention whatever to the girl, either because his thoughts were too busy with his superstitions, or because he judged the ominous imprint on his door was direct warning to behave himself. Hence I had little fear of his troubling Marion when I slipped below for a moment to fill my pouch with tobacco.
I found my canister empty and rummaged in my chest for a new tin and was gone a little longer than I had expected, but I had not been below over five minutes at the most before I again ascended the ladder toward the deck.
As my head came above the companionway rails I heard a low, half-frightened exclamation from Marion, a strange wavering note that sent shivers down my back, and an awful gurgling, choking cry. The three were simultaneous and with a bound I gained the deck and dashed toward the spot where I had left Marion. In the starlight I could see her standing, gripping the back of her chair with one hand, and staring seaward, while, perched upon the rail, holding to a backstay as if about to leap into the tumbling water, was the captain.
“What’s wrong, dear?” I demanded as I reached Marion’s side. “What happened?”
“Oh!” cried Marion with a little start at my voice. “I don’t know, Rod. I can’t explain it. The captain came and stood beside me. Suddenly he reached down and seized my wrists and I cried out. At that instant there was the most terrible sound—a moan, like the cry of a man dying in agony—a banshee wail, and the captain dropped my hand, shrieked and leaped toward the rail. And, Rod—you won’t believe it, but it’s true—some huge, flapping thing, like a giant bat left the ship’s side and went sailing off into the night!”
“No, no,” I said. “You imagined that, dear. Probably one of the crew made the noise to frighten the captain. We’ll search the deck.”
At this moment the captain dropped back to the deck, turned toward us with a ghastly face, and in a hoarse whisper exclaimed, “It was he, Mr. Frazer. I saw him. Good God, I am doomed!”
Without another word he fairly raced aft and down the companionway.
With Marion still trembling, and even more alarmed at the skipper’s wild words, I turned toward the watch who had come racing aft at the cries.
“Get lights,” I said, “and search the decks. Some one’s been trying a practical joke here and has frightened Miss Chadwick half to death.”
In a moment they returned with lanterns and flash lights, but though they searched every inch of the decks, the boats, the coils of rope and the galley, no living being was found.
As I ordered them back to their posts I could hear their low grumbling comments and saw that they kept close together and I knew, as well as wanted too, that they had also heard that weird unearthly cry and that their superstitious fears had been aroused. Indeed, I had noticed that for several days the men had been uneasy—ever since the night of the hand on the skipper’s door—and I had no doubt that the steward had told them of the bloody smear on the panel, of the captain’s terror-filled face and that they knew that some mysterious and secret events had been taking place aft. Chadwick had confirmed this in a way, for he had told me that the men’s conversation had turned to grisly tales of supernatural and uncanny happenings at sea, and while none had alluded to the red stain or the coincidence of the bos’n bird and the death of the third mate, we both felt convinced that they were beginning to believe that a curse or worse hung over the Beluga.
Personally I was not at all disturbed by the wail and the flapping vision Marion described. It was easily explicable by natural causes, even though no man had been found about the decks.
“It was merely a big seabird,” I assured her after the men had left. “He had no doubt perched upon the ship to rest, probably on the boats overhead, and uttered his cry which, to your ears and the overwrought nerves of the captain, sounded so unearthly. Then, when the captain shrieked, the creature was frightened and flapped off. In this light a pelican or a booby would appear gigantic, especially when you were startled, and it was merely a coincidence that he uttered the cry at the instant the skipper bent over you. Thank Heaven he was there to scare the skipper at the psychological moment! I only wish we could count on the creature being on hand all the time.”
“Yes, Rod, I suppose you’re right,” agreed Marion, whose nerves were now calmed once more. “But,” with a little shiver, “it did sound like a lost soul.”
“Hope the beast of a skipper thinks it was,” I declared.
The captain did not return to the deck and when I took Marion below and saw her safely to her cabin, after cautioning her to keep the automatic within reach, I saw that the skipper’s door was closed and I noticed that he had tried to conceal the crimson stain on the panel by daubing it with white paint. But, like murder, the blood stain could not be hidden and an ominous accusing tinge of red showed through the white.
The next morning the captain did not appear and as his seat was vacant at breakfast I asked the steward if he were ill. The yellow rascal’s mouth twisted in a knowing grin and he replied that the skipper was in his room with a severe headache and had complained that he had not slept well. How much the fellow knew or how much he suspected I could not tell, but I surmised that he had put two and two together and I had not the least doubt that the men forward all knew of the night’s happenings.
After breakfast I went forward with Marion and had a chat with her brother. He agreed with me that it had been only a seabird that had frightened her and the captain and like myself he expressed a wish that the creature might always be on hand to put the fear of God into the skipper when he approached Marion.
The day passed uneventfully and in the afternoon the skipper made his appearance, very much the worse for his experience. He made no reference to the affair of the preceding night, however, and seated himself on a chair with his head bowed forward, apparently deep in thought.
He came down to supper nevertheless and I could see that he was making a tremendous effort to hide his feelings and to appear his usual self.
I had persuaded Marion to come to the table, although to make her feel more at ease, I had changed seats with her so that she was at the opposite end of the table from the captain, and facing the companionway. The captain’s seat faced forward toward the steerage bulkhead and the massive shaft of the mizzenmast and I sat at his right hand or on the starboard side of the small table.
We were nearly through the meal and the steward had left the room, when the captain’s knife and fork dropped clattering to the floor; he uttered a low choking moan and I glanced up to see him staring with transfixed eyes and drooling, gaping mouth toward the bulkhead. I wheeled about, a cold chill ran down my neck and I uttered a half suppressed cry. There upon the polished mizzenmast was that awful bloody hand!
And Marion too had seen it. She had turned at the captain’s moan and at my cry and with horrified eyes was staring at the ominous, gruesome thing. It was too much for her. With a sigh she sank limply in her chair and forgetting all else I sprang to her, lifted her and carried her swiftly to her room.
She came out of her faint with a shudder and I tried to soothe her.
“Don’t let it frighten you, dear heart,” I said. “It’s only the rough joke of one of the men. They’re trying to frighten the captain and they’re succeeding. Brace up, darling; be brave. I shouldn’t wonder if whoever’s doing it is trying to help you, really.”
She tried to smile. “Yes, Rod, dear, I know it’s silly,” she whispered. “Of course it’s not supernatural, but oh! It looked so awful!” She shuddered.
“There, there, my love,” I said, reaching down and kissing her pale cheek. “Just lie still and—.”
A yell from the steward brought me up with a jerk and Marion screamed at the sound. I sprang to the door and rushed to the main cabin. The mulatto was on his knees, jibbering and mouthing, with his bloodshot eyes rolling wildly as he gazed, nearly dead with terror, at the mark of the crimson hand.
“Get up, you blithering idiot!” I roared, striking him a resounding cuff on the ear. But he was too overcome with superstitious fear to obey, even if he heard my words or felt the blow, which I doubt. The captain was a huddled, unconscious heap beside his chair, and kicking and cuffing the mulatto into activity I seized the skipper’s shoulders while the steward took his feet and together we dragged him from the room and into his cabin.
“Go forward and tell Mr. Chadwick to come aft,” I ordered him as with sickly green face and goggle eyes he stood gaping toward the main cabin as if he expected the owner of that ghastly hand to appear.
As he disappeared, running as if the bloody hand were outstretched to grasp him, I hurried to Marion. But she was now herself. She was a brave, a wonderful girl and although she had bitten her lip until it was white in order to control herself she greeted me with her sweet smile.
“I’ve sent for Don,” I told her. The captains dead to the world for a time and I want to talk this over the Don. I’m not wasting any sympathy over the captain, but I won’t have any of this nonsense frightening my little sweetheart.”
“Hello, what’s up?” cried Chadwick as he stepped to the door. ”José came running for’ard as though all the devil-devils of Africa were at his heels. What’s happened now?”
“Come out here and I’ll show you,” I replied and led him toward the main cabin.
“May—may I come too?” asked Marion. “I want to, to test my nerves and—I’d rather be with you.”
I hesitated. “Yes, dear,” I said. “But don’t be frightened again. You’re wise to want to face the thing. Imagination is the father of fear.”
As Chadwick saw that great crimson hand imprinted on the yellow spruce shaft a long whistle of amazement escaped his lips.
“By Jove!” he exclaimed. “So, it’s come again!”
“Don,” cried Marion, “what do you mean? Isn’t this the first time?”
Her brother fidgeted.
“No, Marion,” I said. “There’s no use trying to keep the truth from you. The night Captain Dexter tried to enter your room the same thing was on his door.”
It was Chadwick’s turn to be surprised. “Did that—that damnable beast try that?” he demanded.
I nodded. “He was not himself,” I explained. “He’s stark staring mad, I believe, and I thought it best not to mention it as it would merely make you the more worried.”
For an instant Chadwick’s eyes blazed. Then he nodded. “I understand, old man,” he said. “Now let’s have a look at this. Sis, you’d best sit over on the settee. We’ll be at the bottom of the thing soon.”
Together we examined the imprint. “Yes, you were right about it being the impression of a real hand,” declared Chadwick. “There’s no doubt of that. No one but a master artist could paint such a perfect thing and it would take hours—a day perhaps—for even an artist to do it. Rod, my boy, we’ve got to look upon this from a common sense point of view. The thing looks big, but maybe some of the men have a hand as big as this. We’ve got to get prints of every one and compare them. No danger of their not knowing all about it by now. That steward’s told, you can wager.”
“And you can see it’s not in paint,” I said. “See.” I smeared my finger along one edge of the crimson stain as I spoke.
Chadwick touched his finger to it and sniffed. “Not paint,” he agreed, “but it’s not blood, Rod. It doesn’t coagulate.”
“Great Scott, that’s so,” I admitted. “That didn’t occur to me before, but that doesn’t lessen the mystery. If one of the men made it—and of course some one did, how did he do it? No man could have come in here with us at table and slapped his hand on this mast. And I know it was not there when we entered the room or one of us would have seen it.”
“How about that yellow steward?” asked Chadwick. “He might have done it as he passed in or out.”
“He might have,” I assented. “But he didn’t. In the first place, he was frightened out of his wits when he saw it—no nigger could fake such a cry or such terror as he showed, and moreover he has small hands. Finally, he couldn’t have got the stain off his hands in that time.”
“Jove, that’s an idea!” cried Donald. “Whoever did it will have red on his hand. Even if he’s washed it there’ll be signs of it about the nails. Let’s get the beggars together before the chappie who did it can clean up.”
But there was no necessity of summoning the crew. Hardly had Chadwick ceased speaking when there were the sounds of footsteps and a boat steerer, the big Swedish carpenter and the Irish cooper appeared with a group of the men behind them.
“Beggin’ o’ yer pardons, sir,” said the boat steerer, touching his forehead. “The steward’s been a jawin’ o’ some bloody business a goin’ on here aft. He’s a jabberin o’ a bloody han’ what he says he seed here in the cabin, sirs, an’ me and me mates are a wantin’ to know if there’s anythin’ to it, sirs.”
“Yes,” I replied. “We were just about to summon you men. Some one aboard this ship has been trying to play a practical joke. But it’s not the sort of joke to be appreciated, especially with a young lady present. It may please you men to scare the skipper, but I don’t intend to have Miss Chadwick frightened into hysterics by any such coarse behavior. Now you can come in and see for yourselves what it is. Then we intend to examine every member of the crew and get at the very bottom of this business.”
I stood aside and the men entered. For a space they gazed about, ill at ease and not knowing what to expect. Then the Irishman’s eyes took to the mast with its gruesome red hand and he let out a smothered yell.
“Holy St. Pathrick!” he cried, pointing a trembling finger at the thing and backing away. “’Tis the divvil’s own worruk!”
With one accord the men turned and a deep shuddering groan arose from their throats in unison and they cowered back. “Das bane a curse!” mumbled the Swede, holding up his bony hand and touching his thumb and fifth finger together to ward off evil.
“Don’t be fools!” I cried. “It’s nothing but paint. Some one of you men put it there and we’ll find out who.”
The blacksmith shook his head. “No, Mister Frazer,” he growled. “No man put that there thing there. Ye can line us all up an’ welcome, but ne’er a han’ on a man aboard this ship’s that size. Here’s mine and they’re like a babe’s alongside that there.”
As he spoke he stretched out his huge hairy paws for all to see and it took but a glance to know that even his immense hands could not have printed that crimson thing upon the mast.
“An’ where, may I be arskin’ is the skipper?” demanded another of the crew.
“In his cabin,” I replied. “He’s not well. We’ll attend to this matter ourselves. Now, men, line up and pass along one at a time. Hold out your right hands as you pass the table. I’m going to take a print of each and compare them with that one yonder.” I nodded my head toward the mast.
But the men held back and glanced fearfully at the mast.
“Come, men!” I exclaimed. “Don’t be fools. Why, you’re showing fear of a thing that doesn’t frighten Miss Chadwick there.”
“Aye, aye!” rumbled the boat steerer. “We’ll do as ye arsk, sir. But ‘tis a bit rotten—that there thing yonder.”
“Just as harmless as the painted flowers around the paneling,” I replied. “Come on.”
Reluctantly, and keeping their eyes glued to the crimson imprint on the mast, the men passed along and as each one reached the table I pressed his right hand upon a sheet of paper smeared with shoe blacking and Donald made an impression of each big paw upon a sheet of clean paper.
“All there?” I asked as the last man came forward.
“All but the boy and the watch on deck, sir,” replied the second mate.
“Relieve them and send them down,” I ordered.
Presently they arrived; Bob, the man who had been at the wheel, the deck watch, the lookout, and last of all the shaking, wild eyed steward.
But when at last all had had their hand prints taken and Chadwick and I had compared them line for line with the thing upon the mast, we shook our heads. There was not the slightest resemblance between it and any of the others. Not only was it half again as large as the biggest of the men’s hands—the enormous bony hand of the carpenter—but the lines and creases were distinct, while across the palm was a white streak which bespoke a deep scar and no semblance of such a scar was on any one of the clear black prints.
The mystery was deeper than ever. No human hand aboard the Beluga had made that ghastly crimson mark.
“You’re going to be aft from now on, Don,” I said, as completely baffled, we gave up trying to solve the mystery. “This old hooker can’t get along without two navigators and the skipper’s in no condition to handle the ship. I think I’m justified in taking charge. I intend to set a course for port and sail for New Bedford at once. I could put you and Marion ashore at Barbados or the Azores, but I don’t dare touch land for I feel sure the crew would desert in a body. They’re frightened half to death and they believe the Beluga’s hoodooed or cursed. But of course if you wish I’ll do so.”
“Not a bit of it, old man,” declared Donald heartily. “We’ll stick by you to the end. You’re perfectly right about the crew and about the old jelly fish too. But you’d better get his gun before you do anything else. He may take it into his head to shoot some one.”
“That’s so,” I agreed. “I’ll attend to that now.”
Rising, I tiptoed to the skipper’s cabin, listened at the door and hearing no sound within, cautiously opened door. The captain was lying on his bunk, either unconscious or asleep, and with a look of frozen terror on his features, but he was breathing regularly and had a good color and was apparently in no need of attention. A glance about showed me his revolver on a chair beside the bunk and, taking possession of the weapon, I withdrew as silently as I had entered.
“Well, I’ve drawn his teeth at any rate,” I announced as I rejoined Chadwick and Marion and slipped the skipper’s gun into my pocket. “When he comes out I shall tell him of my determination and if he starts to cut any shindies I’ll have to confine him to his cabin. It won’t be the first time a mate has had to lock up an insane whaling captain.”
“If he is insane,” said Chadwick. “I doubt it, but all the same he’s not fit to continue in command and you’ve plenty of witnesses to prove it if any trouble comes up when you reach port.”
“Please, Rod, can’t we get that awful thing off the mast?” exclaimed Marion. “I don’t dare turn my head that way, it gives me the horrors so.”
“Of course, dear,” I replied, jumping up. “What a thoughtless brute I am. I’d forgotten it was there to worry you.”
The imprint washed off from the mast, we all three went on deck, and I sent a man forward to summon some of the men. The second mate was on watch and when the others had come to the after deck I told them of my decision.
“Ye done right, sir,” declared a boat steerer after a grumbled conference with his companions. “We was sayin’ a spell back as how we was goin’ for to send a depitation to the skipper sayin’ as we wouldn’t be a cruisin’ along o’ this here ship no more. But seein’ as you’re a-headin’ for home, sir, we’ll stick along o’ ye—curse or no curse.”
“Thank you,” I said. “And there’s no curse. At any rate if there is it’s not on the ship, but on the skipper. You’ve had nothing to trouble you for’ard, have you?”
“No, sir,” replied the old whaleman. “An’ mebbe ye be right about it bein’ a pussonel curse agin’ the skipper, sir.”
Turning they walked forward.
Soon after this, Marion went below and feeling an immense relief at having Chadwick to share my cares and duties, I left him on watch and turned in myself.
The following morning I shifted our course toward the north and as the men realized they were homeward bound and tailed onto the braces, they worked gaily and with a will, roaring out a rousing chantey. The captain did not appear on deck all that day and ate little, although I ordered the steward to carry meals to his room and to look after his wants. The yellow rascal was still filled with terror every time he entered the cabin and continually cast wild-eyed glances at the mast as if expecting the dread hand would appear there again. All through the day the wind held strong and fair and the old Beluga plunged along in fine shape. My mind felt easier and my heart lighter than for days past and Marion was on deck constantly. Her presence was a delight and now that I knew the men were with me I felt at ease, while the fact that Donald was there to help handle the ship and that I need not worry over the captain troubling Marion while her brother was about, lifted a tremendous load from my shoulders.
The night passed without incident and I think this somewhat reassured the crew and convinced them that the ghostly apparition of the red hand was intended for the captain only. Of course my mind was ceaselessly dwelling on the thing. Both Chadwick and myself felt certain that it was not the hand of any man on the ship and yet we were equally positive that it was a human hand that had made the impression. Then there was the mysteriously ghostly way it had appeared. Altogether it was uncannily supernatural and yet neither of us for an instant looked upon it as supernatural. We knew that human agencies were at the bottom of it, but it was absolutely beyond us to solve the puzzle. I could think of no member of the crew who could have done it, even if, for the sake of argument, I admitted that one of them had been responsible, for they one and all seemed as awed and terrified at the thing as had the steward. Donald and myself were the only ones who did not look upon it with superstitious fear and I knew I had nothing to do with it and I had long since put aside my unfounded suspicions of Chadwick.
The wind held throughout the night and the next day and I was beginning to think that the captain would keep to his room as on the day before when, at what would have been seven bells on a merchant ship—for the half hours are never struck on a whaleship—in other words about six-thirty, he appeared from the companionway. Chadwick and Marion were standing for’ard of the cabin skylight and slightly abaft the spare boats on their skids overhead, and I was pacing aft on the starboard side near the mizzen shrouds.
The captain seemed to have lost fifty pounds during the past thirty-six hours and I would scarcely have known him had I met him ashore. His face was ghastly, a sickly yellow covered with purple-blue blotches as if the network of fine veins in his skin had been burst and formed clots under the surface, his eyes were bloodshot, his lips blue and swollen and a thick stubble of reddish beard covered his flabby jowls and cheeks.
As he reached the deck he glanced about, squinted into the binnacle and uttered a vile oath as he noted the course. Swinging about as if to address me he caught sight of Chadwick for the first time.
With a hoarse bellow of rage he leaned forward, his lips drew back, his reddened eyes glared and seizing a belaying pin he leaped toward Don. The next instant a terrible rattling cry issued from his lips, the upraised arm dropped, the belaying pin fell with a crash to the deck and he stood staring upward and forward as though transfixed. Then, with a shuddering moan, he covered his face with his hand, turned and rushed down the companionway, yelling like a fiend.
“My word, he’s seeing things!” cried Chadwick and involuntarily we both glanced up. And the sight which met our gaze made me think that I too had taken leave of my senses. There, once more, standing out in bold relief upon the white bow of the upturned boat, was the crimson hand! The man at the wheel had seen it too. With a shriek he dropped the spokes and ducked out of sight and I reached the wheel barely in time to save the bark from going aback. At the same moment Donald had leaped up to the skids and was searching about the upturned boats, while Marion, frightened and shaking, but controlling herself with marvellous courage, moved aft from the vicinity of that fearful imprint above her head.
“This is getting deucedly rotten!” cried Chadwick, jumping down to the deck after hastily pulling a bit of canvas over the boat’s bow to hide that ghastly hand. “Whoever’s doing this is devilish clever. It wasn’t there when I walked for’ard with Marion and it must have been put there while we were right under it. By Jove, I’m beginning to get as superstitious as the skipper.”
I was gazing at Donald as he spoke and suddenly I started and with an effort choked back an exclamation. Upon the edge of his pocket and along the back of his wrist was a streak of red, the same deep crimson as that of the hand. Now I knew. It had been Chadwick after all. My first thought was interrupted by another. Perhaps he had smeared himself as he covered the thing up with the canvas. But the next second that idea was dismissed for I remembered that he had not touched it, that the last sight I had of it was clear, distinct and not a smudge upon it. I felt chagrined, resentful, that Don should have done such a thing. He had worried me, he had frightened Marion, he had terrorized and demoralized the men by his childish, melodramatic deed. Of course he had done it to frighten the captain, to get even with the skipper for his behavior, but it was an underhanded, sneaking way to do it. And then another thought flashed through my mind. He had not worked upon the captain’s superstitious fears for his own revenge, but to safeguard Marion. I could see it now. He knew that if the skipper’s mind was occupied with the mysterious hand he would be too perturbed to think of Marion and, in addition, the ghastly thing appearing whenever he was forcing his attentions upon her, would lead him to think that some supernatural agency was warning him to desist. And with this knowledge all my resentment toward Donald was swept away and I felt unbounded gratitude for what he had done. For an instant, in fact, I was on the point of speaking to him, of thanking him and of calling attention to the telltale marks upon his coat and wrist. But the next moment I decided to hold my tongue. Evidently Don did not wish to confide in me or he would have taken me into the secret. No doubt he had his own reasons for not doing so, and so, until he saw fit to confess his part, I would say nothing. Even while these thoughts were racing through my mind I was bawling at the cowering helmsman to come to the wheel and now Chadwick had jerked him to his feet and with no gentle hands was forcing him to his duties.
“You bally idiot!” he cried. “Drop that wheel again and by glory I’ll—.”
His words were cut short by a blood-curdling scream from the cabin. For a brief instant we stood, motionless, speechless, and then we were galvanized into action by the muffled report of a gun. With a bound we were at the companionway and down the ladder. The pungent odor of gun powder filled the air and from the crevices about the captain’s door little wisps of blue smoke were drifting out. Not a sound came from within. I seized the knob, but the door was bolted. Donald and I backed off and together threw ourselves upon the portal. With a crash, a ripping of wood, it gave way and we half fell into the smoke filled room to stand horror stricken at the sight which met our eyes. Upon his bunk lay the captain, his pillow drenched with blood and with the lower half of his face completely shot away. Across his chest, still grasped in the lifeless hand, was an old-fashioned musket which I remember had hung upon his wall. But sickening, horrible as was the sight of that mutilated body, it was the awful expression in the eyes that held us. They were wide open and fixed in a glazed, terrible, sightless stare at the ceiling above the bunk. Slowly our eyes lifted, following that dead gaze, and the blood seemed to freeze within my veins, for there upon the paneling of the room the huge red hand had left its mark!
The sound of hurrying, tramping feet aroused us from our speechless trance.
“We can’t let them in here!” I cried. “Here, Don, wrap him in the bedding and get him into my room. Quick!”
Without a word Chadwick obeyed and shuddering at our gruesome task we quickly wrapped the corpse in the bedclothes and staggered with our burden to my cabin. The men were at the door before we had dumped the body onto the bed and I leaped out.
“Get back for’ard,” I yelled. “When you’re wanted aft I’ll let you know.”
“Beggin’ o’ your pardon, Mr. Frazer,” said the leader, “but me an’ me mates are arskin’ what might be the meanin’ o’ that there screechin’ and that there gunshot.”
I hesitated. After all, the men would have to know presently and it were better to let them know the truth than to form their own opinions. Besides, as I knew, they were worked up to a high pitch by the events of the past few days and I must do anything within reason to keep them willing and working.
You’ve a right to know,” I replied. “It was the captain you heard. He went suddenly mad and blew out his brains. He’s in my cabin now. Would you like to look at him?”
The men retreated a step. “No, thankee, sir,” declared the leader, shaking his head. “We’ll take your word for it, Mr. Frazer. ‘Tis not so surprisin’, sir. We all knowed for’ard as he was getting’ loony. Well, I’m a t’inking Manuel’ll be havin’ comp’ny down to Davy Jones’ afore long.”
“Send a couple of hands aft with canvas and twine,” I ordered as the men, awed by this second tragedy, backed slowly away.
“Aye aye, sir,” muttered the man and in a moment we were alone with the dead.
I washed the hand from the captain’s ceiling, shut and nailed the door and we went on deck. Marion, poor girl, was trembling and terribly nervous, and was standing near the helmsman, who was as apprehensive as herself. As gently as possible we told her of what had happened, omitting the gruesome details and the mark of the red hand.
“Oh, the poor, poor man!” she exclaimed pityingly. “I am so sorry for him. If he were insane he was not responsible for the things he did and I forgive him everything.”
Of course it was out of the question for her to go below and sleep in the presence of that grisly thing in my cabin, but we managed to make her comfortable in a steamer chair and after a time I was relieved to see that she was sleeping.
The following morning, yards were swing, the bark was hove-to and we buried the captain. The service, always a solemn and impressive thing at sea, seemed to affect the men even more than usual and I saw tears in Marion’s eyes as the canvas covered bundle that had once been Captain Dexter slipped from the plank and dropped with a splash into the indigo blue water. Then yards were braced and once more the Beluga turned her blunt bows toward distant New Bedford. The men went about silently, or speaking in low tones, and frequently cast nervous glances toward the spare boats and the after deck houses. But by the next day they had entirely recovered and were in better spirits than they had been for many days past. Regret as we might the unfortunate fate of the skipper, yet we could not help a feeling of immense relief that we were free of his presence and the men, now firmly convinced that the uncanny happenings had been directed at the captain personally, believed that his death had lifted the curse from the ship. Indeed, it apparently had, for the weather held perfect, the wind was fresh and fair, and there was no further appearance of the crimson hand. Of course, knowing what I did, I had no idea that it would reappear, for it had accomplished its purpose and far more, but as the days passed and Chadwick said nothing I was more and more surprised that he did not confide to me that he was responsible for the mystery. Perhaps, I thought, he was ashamed of what he had done and deeply regretted his act which had indirectly made an end of the captain, and with this thought came another and I realized why he refrained from telling me. He knew that when we reached port I would have to tell my story, that an investigation would be made and that under oath I would be compelled to divulge what I knew. As it was, I could not honestly swear to anything, but if I were in possession of his secret it might lead to endless trouble for all of us and perhaps imprisonment for Don, for unintentional as it no doubt was on his part, his acts would likely be looked upon as manslaughter by the authorities. Yet, it were better he kept his secret and I was glad he had. But I puzzled a great deal as to how he had managed the thing. Surely, as he had said, he had been “devils clever”, and what a consummate actor he was!
I was piqued with curiosity to know how he had accomplished it, but I was compelled to let the puzzle go unsolved and soon dismissed the whole matter from my mind.
To me, the days and nights were an endless delight. Marion was growing lovelier every minute, now that there was nothing to trouble or worry her, and she was with me constantly. Gladly would I have had that voyage last forever had it not been for the greater happiness that awaited me at its close, for Marion had promised to wed me as soon as we reached port and I mentally cursed the old Beluga for her slowness.
But even the longest voyage comes to an end in time and at last the low and hazy land rose before our wallowing bows, the multicoloured bluff and the lofty lighthouse of Gay Head came into view and with joyous hearts that home and happiness were just beyond, we slipped slowly past Cuttyhunk and into Buzzard’s Bay. A snorting little tug picked us up off the harbor mouth and an hour later the voyage was over and the Beluga was warped into Merrill’s wharf.
I made my report and told my story to the owners and the authorities; the men made their depositions and scattered to the four winds; Marion and her brother went to the hotel where they were to remain until our wedding, taking Bob, the Indian boy, with them, and the discharging of our cargo began. As I had expected, there was an inquiry and investigation, but it was scarcely more than a formality, for too many weird tales of the sea come to the old New England port to excite more than passing comment and Captain Dexter was by no means the first whaling skipper to go mad and make an end of himself.
Although we were not full up yet, we had not come home empty handed and busily the shore gang labored, hoisting out the greasy casks of oil. Then, one morning, I entered the ‘tweendecks to tally off some casks of spermaceti and as I walked across the planking in a dark corner my foot stubbed against some object on the deck. Stooping I reached down and found a light rod of bamboo—a six foot section of a fishing pole. I tugged at it and found it wedged between the barrels, but presently had it out and saw that there was a large, oddly shaped object lashed to the tip. Curious to know what it might be I took it to the light and uttered an exclamation of amazement at what I saw. The thing at the tip of the pole was a dried and shrivelled hand of enormous size and gruesome with its smear of red. I had solved the mystery. I held the grisly thing that had driven Captain Dexter to his death! But where, I wondered, did Chadwick get that hand? Then, as I looked more closely, I laughed. I was no human hand, but merely a piece of dried and shrunken hide—porpoise or whale skin apparently—with the creases and wrinkles of its surface astonishingly like those of a real hand.
I chuckled to myself as I thought of the expression on Don’s face when I told him of my find and cutting the thing from the rod I stuffed it into my pocket. But while I had solved a portion of the mystery there was still much that puzzled me. How had Don managed to work the contrivance? And then I smiled at my own stupidity. It had been easy. I remembered that each time the uncanny imprint had appeared it had been near a convenient opening. The captain’s door was within six feet of the deck-house entrance. The mizzenmast was close to the skylight and the ceiling of the skipper’s room could be reached from a port. It had been a simple matter for Chadwick to reach in with the rod, make the impression and withdraw the contrivance in an instant. Even the imprint on the spare boat could have been made in the same way. No doubt he had the thing near and reaching up stamped the crimson hand upon the boat above his head expecting that the skipper would come on deck. Even though he had been standing near Marion at the time his act would scarcely have been seen in the semi-twilight. Then, when he sprang upon the skids pretending to search for the perpetrator of the deed, he undoubtedly secreted the rod and the counterfeit hand in one of the boats. Then my thoughts received a rude shock. I had come a mental cropper. I remembered with a jolt to my cocksureness that he had been on deck when the dread sign had appeared on the ceiling of the captain’s room! He could not, by any human possibility, have placed it there. But the next minute I realized what a fool I was. Of course he had not made the impression at that time. No, he had stolen into the cabin earlier in the day and had printed the thing on the paneling, expecting the skipper to see it when he awoke and by some mischance the captain had not looked up until he had dashed below and thrown himself upon his bunk after the apparition on the spare boat. Yes, the whole thing was clear. How very simple it was, now that I held the key to the mystery. And yet no wonder it had baffled us all for so long.
I would give Don some jolt when I sprung my knowledge upon him, but I decided to bide my time for the revelation and the climax. I had no mind to betray Don to Marion and for the next few days I had far too many more important matters to occupy my mind and body, even to think of it.
But at last my duties were ended, Marion had become my bride and Don had received a cable from his owners offering him command of one of their ships about to sail from Boston. It was our last night together and Chadwick and I were alone. The time had come for me to spring my surprise.
“By the way, Don,” I remarked in a casual tone. “I laid the ghost on the Beluga.”
Chadwick leaned forward, surprise and incredulity upon his face.
“My word, no!” he exclaimed. “You mean you’ve solved the mystery? By Jove, old man, tell me about it!”
I laughed. “Fine!” I ejaculated. “Don, you’ve missed your vocation. You should be on the stage—not on the bridge of the ship.”
“Say, what the deuce are you driving at?” cried Don, a puzzled frown on his forehead. “Hanged if I don’t think you’ve caught the madness too.”
“Oh, come,” I teased. “’Fess up, boy. It’s all over now and I’ll never breathe a word to Marion. How did you do it?”
“How did I do what?” demanded Don, irritably. Then a light dawned upon him. “Say, by Jove, I believe you think I had a hand in the bally thing!”
“Of course—this hand!” I chuckled, drawing out the grisly looking affair and tossing it into his lap. “Found it stowed back of the casks in the ‘tween decks.”
Chadwick jumped and involuntarily drew back as the dried hand of hide touched him. “By glory, you must think I’m a rotter!” he cried. “Do you think I’d stoop to such a trick? But what in thunder’s this?”
I was thunderstruck. His surprise and indignation were too real to be assumed. There was some mistake here. I had made a consummate ass of myself and had insulted and offended him.
“It’s only a bit of dried hide,” I explained lamely. “And, Don, I’ll have to apologize. I thought you did start the thing—to protect Marion—and I blessed you for doing it. But I know now I was way off. You see, when you went for’ard that time after the row in the cabin you told the captain he’d see omens and signs. Then, when the ghastly thing appeared on the boat I noticed a smear of red on your coat pocket and your wrist. I’m sorry, Don, dead sorry, to have got you all wrong. I’ll never forgive myself for my asinine suspicions. Here’s my hand, Don, and I hope you’ve no hard feelings.
Chadwick grasped my hand and burst into a hearty laugh. “I don’t blame you, Rod,” he cried. “I’ll admit the circumstantial evidence was strong enough to hang me. But I know no more of the matter than you do and I never put my eyes on this rotten thing before this minute. By glory, no wonder it fooled us—deucedly clever counterfeit, eh? But who the devil did do it?”
At this moment, Bob entered and announced that dinner was ready. And as I saw his round, brown, smiling face and those little beady eyes a great light dawned upon me. Now I knew where I had seen the crimson hand before. It was the Tapi-yni of the San Blas—the crimsoned hand of the avenger of blood—the dread symbol that, printed in annoto on the lintel of an Indian hut, marked the occupant for death!
But I had learned a lesson. I would let dead dogs lie. “Search me,” I replied to Don and slipping the thing into my pocket I arose to greet my wife.
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- As an armed forces brat, we lived in Rockcliff (Ottawa), Namao (Edmonton), Southport (Portage La Prairie), Manitoba, and Dad retired to St. Margaret's Bay, NS.
Working with the Federal Govenment for 25 years, Canadian Hydrographic Service, mostly. Now married to Gail Kelly, with two grown children, Luke and Denyse. Retired to my woodlot at Stillwater Lake, NS, on the rainy days I study the life and work of A. Hyatt Verrill 1871-1954.