Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
II. A Nautical Educatton.
In the course of the next few moments, while the little vessel was being got under way, and while the Ridgeways' "Petrel" gleamed off into the blue distance, Wilbur made certain observations.
The name of the boat on which he found himself was the "Bertha Millner." She was a two-topmast, 28-ton keel schooner, 40 feet long, carrying a large spread of sail--mainsail, foresail, jib, flying-jib, two gaff-topsails, and a staysail. She was very dirty and smelt abominably of some kind of rancid oil. Her crew were Chinamen; there was no mate. But the cook--himself a Chinaman-- who appeared from time to time at the door of the galley, a potato-masher in his hand, seemed to have some sort of authority over the hands. He acted in a manner as a go-between for the Captain and the crew, sometimes interpreting the former's orders, and occasionally giving one of his own.
Wilbur heard the Captain address him as Charlie. He spoke pigeon English fairly. Of the balance of the crew--the five Chinamen-- Wilbur could make nothing. They never spoke, neither to Captain Kitchell, to Charlie, nor to each other; and for all the notice they took of Wilbur he might easily have been a sack of sand. Wilbur felt that his advent on the "Bertha Millner" was by its very nature an extraordinary event; but the absolute indifference of these brown-suited Mongols, the blankness of their flat, fat faces, the dulness of their slanting, fishlike eyes that never met his own or even wandered in his direction, was uncanny, disquieting. In what strange venture was he now to be involved, toward what unknown vortex was this new current setting, this current that had so suddenly snatched him from the solid ground of his accustomed life?
He told himself grimly that he was to have a free cruise up the bay, perhaps as far as Alviso; perhaps the "Bertha Millner" would even make the circuit of the bay before returning to San Francisco. He might be gone a week. Wilbur could already see the scare-heads of the daily papers the next morning, chronicling the disappearance of "One of Society's Most Popular Members."
"That's well, y'r throat halyards. Here, Lilee of the Vallee, give a couple of pulls on y'r peak halyard purchase."
Wilbur stared at the Captain helplessly.
"No can tell, hey?" inquired Charlie from the galley. "Pullum disa lope, sabe?"
Wilbur tugged at the rope the cook indicated.
"That's well, y'r peak halyard purchase," chanted Captain Kitchell.
Wilbur made the rope fast. The mainsail was set, and hung slatting and flapping in the wind. Next the for'sail was set in much the same manner, and Wilbur was ordered to "lay out on the ji'boom and cast the gaskets off the jib." He "lay out" as best he could and cast off the gaskets--he knew barely enough of yachting to understand an order here and there--and by the time he was back on the fo'c'sle head the Chinamen were at the jib halyard and hoisting away.
"That's well, y'r jib halyards."
The "Bertha Millner" veered round and played off to the wind, tugging at her anchor.
"Man y'r windlass."
Wilbur and the crew jumped once more to the brakes.
"Brake down, heave y'r anchor to the cathead."
The anchor-chain, already taut, vibrated and then cranked through the hawse-holes as the hands rose and fell at the brakes. The anchor came home, dripping gray slime. A nor'west wind filled the schooner's sails, a strong ebb tide caught her underfoot.
"We're off," muttered Wilbur, as the "Bertha Millner" heeled to the first gust.
But evidently the schooner was not bound up the bay.
"Must be Vallejo or Benicia, then," hazarded Wilbur, as the sails grew tenser and the water rippled ever louder under the schooner's forefoot. "Maybe they're going after hay or wheat."
The schooner was tacking, headed directly for Meiggs's wharf. She came in closer and closer, so close that Wilbur could hear the talk of the fishermen sitting on the stringpieces. He had just made up his mind that they were to make a landing there, when--"
"Stand by for stays," came the raucous bark of the Captain, who had taken on the heel. The sails slatted furiously as the schooner came about. Then the "Bertha Millner" caught the wind again and lay over quietly and contentedly to her work. The next tack brought the schooner close under Alcatraz. The sea became heavier, the breeze grew stiff and smelled of the outside ocean. Out beyond them to westward opened the Golden Gate, a bleak vista of gray-green water roughened with white-caps.
"Stand by for stays."
Once again as the rudder went hard over, the "Bertha Millner" fretted and danced and shook her sails, calling impatiently for the wind, chafing at its absence like a child reft of a toy. Then again she scooped the nor'wester in the hollow palms of her tense canvases and settled quietly down on the new tack, her bowsprit pointing straight toward the Presidio.
"We'll come about again soon," Wilbur told himself, "and stand over toward the Contra Costa shore."
A fine huge breath of wind passed over the schooner. She heeled it on the instant, the water roaring along her quarter, but she kept her course. Wilbur fell thoughtful again, never more keenly observant.
"She must come about soon," he muttered uneasily, "if she's going to stand up toward Vallejo." His heart sank with a sudden apprehension. A nervousness he could not overcome seized upon him. The "Bertha Millner" held tenaciously to the tack. Within fifty yards of the Presidio came the command again:
"Stand by for stays."
Once more, her bows dancing, her cordage rattling, her sails flapping noisily, the schooner came about. Anxiously Wilbur observed the bowsprit as it circled like a hand on a dial, watching where now it would point. It wavered, fluctuated, rose, fell, then settled easily, pointing toward Lime Point. Wilbur felt a sudden coldness at his heart.
"This isn't going to be so much fun," he muttered between his teeth. The schooner was not bound up the bay for Alviso nor to Vallejo for grain. The track toward Lime Point could mean but one thing. The wind was freshening from the nor'west, the ebb tide rushing out to meet the ocean like a mill-race, at every moment the Golden Gate opened out wider, and within two minutes after the time of the last tack the "Bertha Millner" heeled to a great gust that had come booming in between the heads, straight from the open Pacific.
"Stand by for stays."
As before, one of the Chinese hands stood by the sail rope of the jib.
"Draw y'r jib."
The jib filled. The schooner came about on the port tack; Lime Point fell away over the stern rail. The huge ground swells began to come in, and as she rose and bowed to the first of these it was precisely as though the "Bertha Millner" were making her courtesy to the great gray ocean, now for the first time in full sight on her starboard quarter.
The schooner was beating out to sea through the Middle Channel. Once clear of the Golden Gate, she stood over toward the Cliff House, then on the next tack cleared Point Bonita. The sea began building up in deadly earnest--they were about to cross the bar. Everything was battened down, the scuppers were awash, and the hawse-holes spouted like fountains after every plunge. Once the Captain ordered all men aloft, just in time to escape a gigantic dull green roller that broke like a Niagara over the schooner's bows, smothering the decks knee-deep in a twinkling.
The wind blew violent and cold, the spray was flying like icy small-shot. Without intermission the "Bertha Millner" rolled and plunged and heaved and sank. Wilbur was drenched to the skin and sore in every joint, from being shunted from rail to mast and from mast to rail again. The cordage sang like harp-strings, the schooner's forefoot crushed down into the heaving water with a hissing like that of steam, blocks rattled, the Captain bellowed his orders, rope-ends flogged the hollow deck till it reverberated like a drum-head. The crossing of the bar was one long half-hour of confusion and discordant sound.
When they were across the bar the Captain ordered the cook to give the men their food.
"Git for'rd, sonny," he added, fixing Wilbur with his eye. "Git for'rd, this is tawble dee hote, savvy?"
Wilbur crawled forward on the reeling deck, holding on now to a mast, now to a belaying-pin, now to a stay, watching his chance and going on between the inebriated plunges of the schooner.
He descended the fo'c'sle hatch. The Chinamen were already there, sitting on the edges of their bunks. On the floor, at the bottom of the ladder, punk-sticks were burning in an old tomato-can.
Charlie brought in supper--stewed beef and pork in a bread-pan and a wooden kit--and the Chinamen ate in silence with their sheath- knives and from tin plates. A liquid that bore a distant resemblance to coffee was served. Wilbur learned afterward to know the stuff as Black Jack, and to be aware that it was made from bud barley and was sweetened with molasses. A single reeking lamp swung with the swinging of the schooner over the centre of the group, and long after Wilbur could remember the grisly scene-- the punk-sticks, the bread-pan full of hunks of meat, the horrid close and oily smell, and the circle of silent, preoccupied Chinese, each sitting on his bunk-ledge, devouring stewed pork and holding his pannikin of Black Jack between his feet against the rolling of the boat.
Wilbur looked fearfully at the mess in the pan, recalling the chocolate and stuffed olives that had been his last luncheon.
"Well," he muttered, clinching his teeth, "I've got to come to it sooner or later." His penknife was in the pocket of his waist- coat, underneath his oilskin coat. He opened the big blade, harpooned a cube of pork, and deposited it on his tin plate. He ate it slowly and with savage determination. But the Black Jack was more than he could bear.
"I'm not hungry enough for that just now," he told himself. "Say, Jim," he said, turning to the Chinaman next him on the bunk-ledge, "say, what kind of boat is this? What you do--where you go?"
The other moved away impatiently.
"No sabe, no sabe," he answered, shaking his head and frowning. Throughout the whole of that strange meal these were the only words spoken.
When Wilbur came on deck again he noted that the "Bertha Millner" had already left the whistling-buoy astern. Off to the east, her sails just showing above the waves, was a pilot-boat with the number 7 on her mainsail. The evening was closing in; the Farallones were in plain sight dead ahead. Far behind, in a mass of shadow just bluer than the sky, he could make out a few twinkling lights--San Francisco.
Half an hour later Kitchell came on deck from his supper in the cabin aft. He glanced in the direction of the mainland, now almost out of sight, then took the wheel from one of the Chinamen and commanded, "Ease off y'r fore an' main sheets." The hands eased away and the schooner played off before the wind.
The staysail was set. The "Bertha Millner" headed to southwest, bowling easily ahead of a good eight-knot breeze.
Next came the order "All hands aft!" and Wilbur and his mates betook themselves to the quarterdeck. Charlie took the wheel, and he and Kitchell began to choose the men for their watches, just as Wilbur remembered to have chosen sides for baseball during his school days.
"Sonny, I'll choose you; you're on my watch," said the Captain to Wilbur, "and I will assoom the ree-sponsibility of your nautical eddoocation."
"I may as well tell you at once," began Wilbur, "that I'm no sailor."
"But you will be, soon," answered the Captain, at once soothing and threatening; "you will be, Mister Lilee of the Vallee, you kin lay to it as how you will be one of the best sailormen along the front, as our dear friend Jim says. Before I git throo with you, you'll be a sailorman or shark-bait, I can promise you. You're on my watch; step over here, son."
The watches were divided, Charlie and three other Chinamen on the port, Kitchell, Wilbur, and two Chinamen on the starboard. The men trooped forward again.
The tiny world of the schooner had lapsed to quiet. The "Bertha Millner" was now clear of the land, that lay like a blur of faintest purple smoke--ever growing fainter--low in the east. The Farallones showed but their shoulders above the horizon. The schooner was standing well out from shore--even beyond the track of the coasters and passenger steamers--to catch the Trades from the northwest. The sun was setting royally, and the floor of the ocean shimmered like mosaic. The sea had gone down and the fury of the bar was a thing forgotten. It was perceptibly warmer.
On board, the two watches mingled forward, smoking opium and playing a game that looked like checkers. Three of them were washing down the decks with kaiar brooms. For the first time since he had come on board Wilbur heard the sound of their voices.
The evening was magnificent. Never to Wilbur's eyes had the Pacific appeared so vast, so radiant, so divinely beautiful. A star or two burned slowly through that part of the sky where the pink began to fade into the blue. Charlie went forward and set the side lights--red on the port rigging, green on the starboard. As he passed Wilbur, who was leaning over the rail and watching the phosphorus flashing just under the surface, he said:
"Hey, you go talkee-talk one-piecey Boss, savvy Boss--chin-chin."
Wilbur went aft and came up on the poop, where Kitchell stood at the wheel, smoking an inverted "Tarrier's Delight."
"Now, son," began Kitchell, "I natch'ly love you so that I'm goin' to do you a reel favor, do you twig? I'm goin' to allow you to berth aft in the cabin, 'long o' me an' Charlie, an' beesides you can make free of my quarterdeck. Mebbee you ain't used to the ways of sailormen just yet, but you can lay to it that those two are reel concessions, savvy? I ain't a mush-head, like mee dear friend Jim. You ain't no water-front swine, I can guess that with one hand tied beehind me. You're a toff, that's what you are, and your lines has been laid for toffs. I ain't askin' you no questions, but you got brains, an' I figger on gettin' more outa you by lettin' you have y'r head a bit. But mind, now, you get gay once, sonny, or try to flimflam me, or forget that I'm the boss of the bathtub, an' strike me blind, I'll cut you open, an' you can lay to that, son. Now, then, here's the game: You work this boat 'long with the coolies, an' take my orders, an' walk chalk, an' I'll teach you navigation, an' make this cruise as easy as how-do-you-do. You don't, an' I'll manhandle you till y'r bones come throo y'r hide."
"I've no choice in the matter," said Wilbur. "I've got to make the best of a bad situation."
"I ree-marked as how you had brains," muttered the Captain.
"But there's one thing," continued Wilbur; "if I'm to have my head a little, as you say, you'll find we can get along better if you put me to rights about this whole business. Why was I brought aboard, why are there only Chinese along, where are we going, what are we going to do, and how long are we going to be gone?"
Kitchell spat over the side, and then sucked the nicotine from his mustache.
"Well," he said, resuming his pipe, "it's like this, son. This ship belongs to one of the Six Chinese Companies of Chinatown in Frisco. Charlie, here, is one of the shareholders in the business. We go down here twice a year off Cape Sain' Lucas, Lower California, an' fish for blue sharks, or white, if we kin ketch 'em. We get the livers of these an' try out the oil, an' we bring back that same oil, an' the Chinamen sell it all over San Francisco as simon-pure cod-liver oil, savvy? An' it pays like a nitrate bed. I come in because it's a Custom-house regulation that no coolie can take a boat out of Frisco."
"And how do I come in?" asked Wilbur.
"Mee dear friend Jim put a knock-me-out drop into your Manhattan cocktail. It's a capsule filled with a drug. You were shanghaied, son," said the Captain, blandly.
* * * * * * * * * *
About an hour later Wilbur turned in. Kitchell showed him his bunk with its "donkey's breakfast" and single ill-smelling blanket. It was located under the companionway that led down into the cabin. Kitchell bunked on one side, Charlie on the other. A hacked deal table, covered with oilcloth and ironed to the floor, a swinging-lamp, two chairs, a rack of books, a chest or two, and a flaring picture cut from the advertisement of a ballet, was the room's inventory in the matter of furniture and ornament.
Wilbur sat on the edge of his bunk before undressing, reviewing the extraordinary events of the day. In a moment he was aware of a movement in one of the other two bunks, and presently made out Charlie lying on his side and holding in the flame of an alcohol lamp a skewer on which some brown and sticky stuff boiled and sizzled. He transformed the stuff to the bowl of a huge pipe and drew on it noisily once or twice. In another moment he had sunk back in his bunk, nearly senseless, but with a long breath of an almost blissful contentment.
"Beast!" muttered Wilbur, with profound disgust.
He threw off his oilskin coat and felt in the pocket of his waistcoat (which he had retained when he had changed his clothes in the fo'c'sle) for his watch. He drew it out. It was just nine o'clock. All at once an idea occurred to him. He fumbled in another pocket of the waistcoat and brought out one of his calling-cards.
For a moment Wilbur remained motionless, seated on the bunk-ledge, smiling grimly, while his glance wandered now to the sordid cabin of the "Bertha Millner" and the opium-drugged coolie sprawled on the "donkey's breakfast," and now to the card in his hand on which a few hours ago he had written: