Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
III. The Lady Letty
Another day passed, then two. Before Wilbur knew it he had settled himself to his new life, and woke one morning to the realization that he was positively enjoying himself. Daily the weather grew warmer. The fifth day out from San Francisco it was actually hot. The pitch grew soft in the "Bertha Millner's" deck seams, the masts sweated resin. The Chinamen went about the decks wearing but their jeans and blouses. Kitchell had long since abandoned his coat and vest. Wilbur's oilskins became intolerable, and he was at last constrained to trade his pocket- knife to Charlie for a suit of jeans and wicker sandals, such as the coolies wore--and odd enough he looked in them.
The Captain instructed him in steering, and even promised to show him the use of the sextant and how to take an observation in the fake short and easy coasting style of navigation. Furthermore, he showed him how to read the log and the manner of keeping the dead reckoning.
During most of his watches Wilbur was engaged in painting the inside of the cabin, door panels, lintels, and the few scattered moldings; and toward the middle of the first week out, when the "Bertha Millner" was in the latitude of Point Conception, he and three Chinamen, under Kitchell's directions, ratlined down the forerigging and affixed the crow's nest upon the for'mast. The next morning, during Charlie's watch on deck, a Chinaman was sent up into the crow's nest, and from that time on there was always a lookout maintained from the masthead.
More than once Wilbur looked around him at the empty coruscating indigo of the ocean floor, wondering at the necessity of the lookout, and finally expressed his curiosity to Kitchell. The Captain had now taken not a little to Wilbur; at first for the sake of a white man's company, and afterward because he began to place a certain vague reliance upon Wilbur's judgment. Kitchell had reemarked as how he had brains.
"Well, you see, son," Kitchell had explained to Wilbur, "os- tensiblee we are after shark-liver oil--and so we are; but also we are on any lay that turns up; ready for any game, from wrecking to barratry. Strike me, if I haven't thought of scuttling the dough- dish for her insoorance. There's regular trade, son, to be done in ships, and then there's pickin's an' pickin's an' pickin's. Lord, the ocean's rich with pickin's. Do you know there's millions made out of the day-bree and refuse of a big city? How about an ocean's day-bree, just chew on that notion a turn; an' as fur a lookout, lemmee tell you, son, cast your eye out yon," and he swept the sea with a forearm; "nothin', hey, so it looks, but lemmee tell you, son, there ain't no manner of place on the ball of dirt where you're likely to run up afoul of so many things-- unexpected things--as at sea. When you're clear o' land lay to this here pree-cep', 'A million to one on the unexpected.'"
The next day fell almost dead calm. The hale, lusty-lunged nor'wester that had snorted them forth from the Golden Gate had lapsed to a zephyr, the schooner rolled lazily southward with the leisurely nonchalance of a grazing ox. At noon, just after dinner, a few cat's-paws curdled the milky-blue whiteness of the glassy surface, and the water once more began to talk beneath the bow-sprit. It was very hot. The sun spun silently like a spinning brass discus over the mainmast. On the fo'c'sle head the Chinamen were asleep or smoking opium. It was Charlie's watch. Kitchell dozed in his hammock in the shadow of the mainsheet. Wilbur was below tinkering with his paint-pot about the cabin. The stillness was profound. It was the stillness of the summer sea at high noon.
The lookout in the crow's nest broke the quiet.
"Hy-yah, hy-yah!" he cried, leaning from the barrel and calling through an arched palm. "Hy-yah, one two, plenty, many tortle, topside, wattah; hy-yah, all-same tortle."
"Hello, hello!" cried the Captain, rolling from his hammock. "Turtle? Where-away?"
"I tink-um 'bout quallah mile, mebbee, four-piecee tortle all-same weatha bow."
"Turtle, hey? Down y'r wheel, Jim, haul y'r jib to win'ward," he commanded the man at the wheel; then to the men forward: "Get the dory overboard. Son, Charlie, and you, Wing, tumble in. Wake up now and see you stay so."
The dory was swung over the side, and the men dropped into her and took their places at the oars. "Give way," cried the Captain, settling himself in the bow with the gaff in his hand. "Hey, Jim!" he shouted to the lookout far above, "hey, lay our course for us." The lookout nodded, the oars fell, and the dory shot forward in the direction indicated by the lookout.
"Kin you row, son? asked Kitchell, with sudden suspicion. Wilbur smiled.
"You ask Charlie and Wing to ship their oars and give me a pair." The Captain complied, hesitating.
"Now, what," he said grimly, "now, what do you think you're going to do, sonny?"
"I'm going to show you the Bob Cook stroke we used in our boat in '95, when we beat Harvard," answered Wilbur.
Kitchell gazed doubtfully at the first few strokes, then with growing interest watched the tremendous reach, the powerful knee- drive, the swing, the easy catch, and the perfect recover. The dory was cutting the water like a gasoline launch, and between strokes there was the least possible diminishing of the speed.
"I'm a bit out of form just now," remarked Wilbur, "and I'm used to the sliding seat; but I guess it'll do." Kitchell glanced at the human machine that once was No. 5 in the Yale boat and then at the water hissing from the dory's bows. "My Gawd!" he said, under his breath. He spat over the bows and sucked the nicotine from his mustache, thoughtfully.
"I ree-marked," he observed, "as how you had brains, my son."
A few minutes later the Captain, who was standing in the dory's bow and alternately conning the ocean's surface and looking back to the Chinaman standing on the schooner's masthead, uttered an exclamation:
"Steady, ship your oars, quiet now, quiet, you damn fools! We're right on 'em--four, by Gawd, an' big as dinin' tables!"
The oars were shipped. The dory's speed dwindled. "Out your paddles, sit on the gun'l, and paddle ee-asy." The hands obeyed. The Captain's voice dropped to a whisper. His back was toward them and he gestured with one free hand. Looking out over the water from his seat on the gun'l, Wilbur could make out a round, greenish mass like a patch of floating seaweed, just under the surface, some sixty yards ahead.
"Easy sta'board," whispered the Captain under his elbow. "Go ahead, port; e-e-easy all, steady, steady."
The affair began to assume the intensity of a little drama--a little drama of midocean. In spite of himself, Wilbur was excited. He even found occasion to observe that the life was not so bad, after all. This was as good fun as stalking deer. The dory moved forward by inches. Kitchell's whisper was as faint as a dying infant's: "Steady all, s-stead-ee, sh-stead--"
He lunged forward sharply with the gaff, and shouted aloud: "I got him--grab holt his tail flippers, you fool swabs; grab holt quick-- don't you leggo--got him there, Charlie? If he gets away, you swine, I'll rip y' open with the gaff--heave now--heave--there-- there--soh, stand clear his nippers. Strike me! he's a whacker. I thought he was going to get away. Saw me just as I swung the gaff, an' ducked his nut."
Over the side, bundled without ceremony into the boat, clawing, thrashing, clattering, and blowing like the exhaust of a donkey- engine, tumbled the great green turtle, his wet, green shield of shell three feet from edge to edge, the gaff firmly transfixed in his body, just under the fore-flipper. From under his shell protruded his snake-like head and neck, withered like that of an old man. He was waving his head from side to side, the jaws snapping like a snapped silk handkerchief. Kitchell thrust him away with a paddle. The turtle craned his neck, and catching the bit of wood in his jaw, bit it in two in a single grip.
"I tol' you so, I tol' you to stand clear his snapper. If that had been your shin now, eh? Hello, what's that?"
Faintly across the water came a prolonged hallooing from the schooner. Kitchell stood up in the dory, shading his eyes with his hat.
"What's biting 'em now?" he muttered, with the uneasiness of a captain away from his ship. "Oughta left Charlie on board--or you, son. Who's doin' that yellin', I can't make out."
"Up in the crow's nest," exclaimed Wilbur. "It's Jim, see, he's waving his arms."
"Well, whaduz he wave his dam' fool arms for?" growled Kitchell, angry because something was going forward he did not understand.
"There, he's shouting again. Listen--I can't make out what he's yelling."
"He'll yell to a different pipe when I get my grip of him. I'll twist the head of that swab till he'll have to walk back'ard to see where he's goin'. Whaduz he wave his arms for--whaduz he yell like a dam' philly-loo bird for? What's him say, Charlie?"
"Jim heap sing, no can tell. Mebbee--tinkum sing, come back chop- chop."
"We'll see. Oars out, men, give way. Now, son, put a little o' that Yale stingo in the stroke."
In the crow's nest Jim still yelled and waved like one distraught, while the dory returned at a smart clip toward the schooner. Kitchell lathered with fury.
"Oh-h," he murmured softly through his gritted teeth. "Jess lemmee lay mee two hands afoul of you wunst, you gibbering, yellow philly-loo bird, believe me, you'll dance. Shut up!" he roared; "shut up, you crazy do-do, ain't we coming fast as we can?"
The dory bumped alongside, and the Captain was over the rail like quicksilver. The hands were all in the bow, looking and pointing to the west. Jim slid down the ratlines, bubbling over with suppressed news. Before his feet had touched the deck Kitchell had kicked him into the stays again, fulminating blasphemies.
"Sing!" he shouted, as the Chinaman clambered away like a bewildered ape; "sing a little more. I would if I were you. Why don't you sing and wave, you dam' fool philly-loo bird?"
"Yas, sah," answered the coolie.
"What you yell for? Charlie, ask him whaffo him sing."
"I tink-um ship," answered Charlie calmly, looking out over the starboard quarter.
"Him velly sick," hazarded the Chinaman from the ratlines, adding a sentence in Chinese to Charlie.
"He says he tink-um ship sick, all same; ask um something--ship velly sick."
By this time the Captain, Wilbur, and all on board could plainly make out a sail some eight miles off the starboard bow. Even at that distance, and to eyes so inexperienced as those of Wilbur, it needed but a glance to know that something was wrong with her. It was not that she failed to ride the waves with even keel, it was not that her rigging was in disarray, nor that her sails were disordered. Her distance was too great to make out such details. But in precisely the same manner as a trained physician glances at a doomed patient, and from that indefinable look in the face of him and the eyes of him pronounces the verdict "death," so Kitchell took in the stranger with a single comprehensive glance, and exclaimed:
"Yas, sah. I tink-um velly sick."
"Oh, go to 'll, or go below and fetch up my glass--hustle!"
The glass was brought. "Son," exclaimed Kitchell--"where is that man with the brains? Son, come aloft here with me." The two clambered up the ratlines to the crow's nest. Kitchell adjusted the glass.
"She's a bark," he muttered, "iron built--about seven hundred tons, I guess--in distress. There's her ensign upside down at the mizz'nhead--looks like Norway--an' her distress signals on the spanker gaff. Take a blink at her, son--what do you make her out? Lord, she's ridin' high."
Wilbur took the glass, catching the stranger after several clumsy attempts. She was, as Captain Kitchell had announced, a bark, and, to judge by her flag, evidently Norwegian.
"How she rolls!" muttered Wilbur.
"That's what I can't make out," answered Kitchell. "A bark such as she ain't ought to roll thata way; her ballast'd steady her."
"What's the flags on that boom aft--one's red and white and square-shaped, and the other's the same color, only swallow-tail in shape?"
"That's H. B., meanin": 'I am in need of assistance.'"
"Well, where's the crew? I don't see anybody on board."
"Oh, they're there right enough."
"Then they're pretty well concealed about the premises," turned Wilbur, as he passed the glass to the Captain.
"She does seem kinda empty," said the Captain in a moment, with a sudden show of interest that Wilbur failed to understand.
"An' where's her boats?" continued Kitchell. "I don't just quite make out any boats at all." There was a long silence.
"Seems to be a sort of haze over her," observed Wilbur.
"I noticed that, air kinda quivers oily-like. No boats, no boats-- an' I can't see anybody aboard." Suddenly Kitchell lowered the glass and turned to Wilbur. He was a different man. There was a new shine in his eyes, a wicked line appeared over the nose, the jaw grew salient, prognathous.
"Son," he exclaimed, gimleting Wilbur with his contracted eves; "I have reemarked as how you had brains. I kin fool the coolies, but I can't fool you. It looks to me as if that bark yonder was a derelict; an' do you know what that means to us? Chaw on it a turn."
"If there's a crew on board they're concealed from the public gaze--an' where are the boats then? I figger she's an abandoned derelict. Do you know what that means for us--for you and I? It means," and gripping Wilbur by the shoulders, he spoke the word into his face with a savage intensity. "It means salvage, do you savvy?--salvage, salvage. Do you figger what salvage on a seven- hundred-tonner would come to? Well, just lemmee drop it into your think tank, an' lay to what I say. It's all the ways from fifty to seventy thousand dollars, whatever her cargo is; call it sixty thousand--thirty thou' apiece. Oh, I don't know!" he exclaimed, lapsing to landman's slang. "Wha'd I say about a million to one on the unexpected at sea?"
"Thirty thousand!" exclaimed Wilbur, without thought as yet.
"Now y'r singin' songs," cried the Captain. "Listen to me, son," he went on, rapidly shutting up the glass and thrusting it back in the case; "my name's Kitchell, and I'm hog right through." He emphasized the words with a leveled forefinger, his eyes flashing. H--O--G spells very truly yours, Alvinza Kitchell--ninety-nine swine an' me make a hundred swine. I'm a shoat with both feet in the trough, first, last, an' always. If that bark's abandoned, an' I says she is, she's ours. I'm out for anything that there's stuff in. I guess I'm more of a beach-comber by nature than anything else. If she's abandoned she belongs to us. To 'll with this coolie game. We'll go beach-combin', you and I. We'll board that bark and work her into the nearest port--San Diego, I guess-- and get the salvage on her if we have to swim in her. Are you with me?" he held out his hand. The man was positively trembling from head to heel. It was impossible to resist the excitement of the situation, its novelty--the high crow's nest of the schooner, the keen salt air, the Chinamen grouped far below, the indigo of the warm ocean, and out yonder the forsaken derelict, rolling her light hull till the garboard streak flashed in the sun.
"Well, of course, I'm with you, Cap," exclaimed Wilbur, gripping Kitchell's hand. "When there's thirty thousand to be had for the asking I guess I'm a 'na'chel bawn' beach-comber myself."
"Now, nothing about this to the coolies."
"But how will you make out with your owners, the Six Companies? Aren't you bound to bring the 'Bertha' in?"
"Rot my owners!" exclaimed Kitchell. "I ain't a skipper of no oil-boat any longer. I'm a beach-comber." He fixed the wallowing bark with glistening eyes. "Gawd strike me," he murmured, "ain't she a daisy? It's a little Klondike. Come on, son."
The two went down the ratlines, and Kitchell ordered a couple of the hands into the dory that had been rowing astern. He and Wilbur followed. Charlie was left on board, with directions to lay the schooner to. The dory flew over the water, Wilbur setting the stroke. In a few moments she was well up with the bark. Though a larger boat than the "Bertha Millner," she was rolling in lamentable fashion, and every laboring heave showed her bottom incrusted with barnacles and seaweed.
Her fore and main tops'ls and to'gallants'ls were set, as also were her lower stays'ls and royals. But the braces seemed to have parted, and the yards were swinging back and forth in their ties. The spanker was brailed up, and the spanker boom thrashed idly over the poop as the bark rolled and rolled and rolled. The mainmast was working in its shoe, the rigging and backstays sagged. An air of abandonment, of unspeakable loneliness, of abomination hung about her. Never had Wilbur seen anything more utterly alone. Within three lengths the Captain rose in his place and shouted:
"Bark ahoy!" There was no answer. Thrice he repeated the call, and thrice the dismal thrashing of the spanker boom and the flapping of the sails was the only answer. Kitchell turned to Wilbur in triumph. "I guess she's ours," he whispered. They were now close enough to make out the bark's name upon her counter, "Lady Letty," and Wilbur was in the act of reading it aloud, when a huge brown dorsal fin, like the triangular sail of a lugger, cut the water between the dory and the bark.
"Shark!" said Kitchell; "and there's another!" he exclaimed in the next instant, "and another! Strike me, the water's alive with 'em'! There's a stiff on the bark, you can lay to that"; and at that, acting on some strange impulse, he called again, "Bark ahoy!" There was no response.
The dory was now well up to the derelict, and pretty soon a prolonged and vibratory hissing noise, strident, insistent, smote upon their ears.
"What's that?" exclaimed Wilbur, perplexed. The Captain shook his head, and just then, as the bark rolled almost to her scuppers in their direction, a glimpse of the deck was presented to their view. It was only a glimpse, gone on the instant, as the bark rolled back to port, but it was time enough for Wilbur and the Captain to note the parted and open seams and the deck bulging, and in one corner blown up and splintered.
The captain smote a thigh.
"Coal!" he cried. "Anthracite coal. The coal he't up and generated gas, of course--no fire, y'understand, just gas--gas blew up the deck--no way of stopping combustion. Naturally they had to cut for it. Smell the gas, can't you? No wonder she's hissing--no wonder she rolled--cargo goes off in gas--and what's to weigh her down? I was wondering what could 'a' wrecked her in this weather. Lord, it's as plain as Billy-b'damn."
The dory was alongside. Kitchell watched his chance, and as the bark rolled down caught the mainyard-brace hanging in a bight over the rail and swung himself to the deck. "Look sharp!" he called, as Wilbur followed. "It won't do for you to fall among them shark, son. Just look at the hundreds of 'em. There's a stiff on board, sure."
Wilbur steadied himself on the swaying broken deck, choking against the reek of coal-gas that hissed upward on every hand. The heat was almost like a furnace. Everything metal was intolerable to the touch.
"She's abandoned, sure," muttered the Captain. "Look," and he pointed to the empty chocks on the house and the severed lashings. "Oh, it's a haul, son; it's a haul, an' you can lay to that. Now, then, cabin first," and he started aft.
But it was impossible to go into the cabin. The moment the door was opened suffocating billows of gas rushed out and beat them back. On the third trial the Captain staggered out, almost overcome with its volume.
"Can't get in there for a while yet," he gasped, "but I saw the stiff on the floor by the table; looks like the old man. He's spit his false teeth out. I knew there was a stiff aboard."
"Then there's more than one," said Wilbur. "See there!" From behind the wheel-box in the stern protruded a hand and forearm in an oilskin sleeve.
Wilbur ran up, peered over the little space between the wheel and the wheel-box, and looked straight into a pair of eyes--eyes that were alive. Kitchell came up.
"One left, anyhow," he muttered, looking over Wilbur's shoulder; "sailor man, though; can't interfere with our salvage. The bark's derelict, right enough. Shake him out of there, son; can't you see the lad's dotty with the gas?"
Cramped into the narrow space of the wheel-box like a terrified hare in a blind burrow was the figure of a young boy. So firmly was he wedged into the corner that Kitchell had to kick down the box before he could be reached. The boy spoke no word. Stupefied with the gas, he watched them with vacant eyes.
Wilbur put a hand under the lad's arm and got him to his feet. He was a tall, well-made fellow, with ruddy complexion and milk-blue eyes, and was dressed, as if for heavy weather, in oilskins.
"Well, sonny, you've had a fine mess aboard here," said Kitchell. The boy--he might have been two and twenty--stared and frowned.
"Clean loco from the gas. Get him into the dory, son. I'll try this bloody cabin again."
Kitchell turned back and descended from the poop, and Wilbur, his arm around the boy, followed. Kitchell was already out of hearing, and Wilbur was bracing himself upon the rolling deck, steadying the young fellow at his side, when the latter heaved a deep breath. His throat and breast swelled. Wilbur stared sharply, with a muttered exclamation:
"My God, it's a girl!" he said.