Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
Meanwhile Charlie had brought the "Bertha Millner" up to within hailing distance of the bark, and had hove her to. Kitchell ordered Wilbur to return to the schooner and bring over a couple of axes.
"We'll have to knock holes all through the house, and break in the skylights and let the gas escape before we can do anything. Take the kid over and give him whiskey; then come along back and bear a hand."
Wilbur had considerable difficulty in getting into the dory from the deck of the plunging derelict with his dazed and almost helpless charge. Even as he slid down the rope into the little boat and helped the girl to follow, he was aware of two dull, brownish-green shadows moving just beneath the water's surface not ten feet away, and he knew that he was being stealthily watched. The Chinamen at the oars of the dory, with that extraordinary absence of curiosity which is the mark of the race, did not glance a second time at the survivor of the "Lady Letty's" misadventure. To them it was evident she was but a for'mast hand. However, Wilbur examined her with extraordinary interest as she sat in the sternsheets, sullen, half-defiant, half-bewildered, and bereft of speech.
She was not pretty--she was too tall for that--quite as tall as Wilbur himself, and her skeleton was too massive. Her face was red, and the glint of blue ice was in her eyes. Her eyelashes and eyebrows, as well as the almost imperceptible down that edged her cheek when she turned against the light, were blond almost to whiteness. What beauty she had was of the fine, hardy Norse type. Her hands were red and hard, and even beneath the coarse sleeve of the oilskin coat one could infer that the biceps and deltoids were large and powerful. She was coarse-fibred, no doubt, mentally as well as physically, but her coarseness, so Wilbur guessed, would prove to be the coarseness of a primitive rather than of a degenerate character.
One thing he saw clearly during the few moments of the dory's trip between bark and schooner--the fact that his charge was a woman must be kept from Captain Kitchell. Wilbur knew his man by now. It could be done. Kitchell and he would take the "Lady Letty" into the nearest port as soon as possible. The deception would have to be maintained only for a day or two.
He left the girl on board the schooner and returned to the derelict with the axes. He found Kitchell on the house, just returned from a hasty survey of the prize.
"She's a daisy," vociferated the Captain, as Wilbur came aboard. "I've been havin' a look 'round. She's brand-new. See the date on the capst'n-head? Christiania is her hailin' port--built there; but it's her papers I'm after. Then we'll know where we're at. How's the kid?"
"She's all right," answered Wilbur, before he could collect his thoughts. But the Captain thought he had reference to the "Bertha."
"I mean the kid we found in the wheel-box. He doesn't count in our salvage. The bark's been abandoned as plain as paint. If I thought he stood in our way," and Kitchell's jaw grew salient. "I'd shut him in the cabin with the old man a spell, till he'd copped off. Now then, son, first thing to do is to chop vents in this yere house."
"Hold up--we can do better than that," said Wilbur, restraining Kitchell's fury of impatience. "Slide the big skylight off--it's loose already."
A couple of the schooner's hands were ordered aboard the "Lady Letty," and the skylight removed. At first the pour of gas was terrific, but by degrees it abated, and at the end of half an hour Kitchell could keep back no longer.
"Come on!" he cried, catching up an axe; "rot the difference." All the plundering instincts of the man were aroused and clamoring. He had become a very wolf within scent of its prey--a veritable hyena nuzzling about its carrion.
"Lord!" he gasped, "t' think that everything we see, everything we find, is ours!"
Wilbur himself was not far behind him in eagerness. Somewhere deep down in the heart of every Anglo-Saxon lies the predatory instinct of his Viking ancestors--an instinct that a thousand years of respectability and taxpaying have not quite succeeded in eliminating.
A flight of six steps, brass-bound and bearing the double L of the bark's monogram, led them down into a sort of vestibule. From the vestibule a door opened directly into the main cabin. They entered.
The cabin was some twenty feet long and unusually spacious. Fresh from his recollection of the grime and reek of the schooner, it struck Wilbur as particularly dainty. It was painted white with stripes of blue, gold and pea-green. On either side three doors opened off into staterooms and private cabins, and with each roll of the derelict these doors banged like an irregular discharge of revolvers. In the centre was the dining-table, covered with a red cloth, very much awry. On each side of the table were four arm chairs, screwed to the deck, one somewhat larger at the head. Overhead, in swinging racks, were glasses and decanters of whiskey and some kind of white wine. But for one feature the sight of the "Letty's" cabin was charming. However, on the floor by the sliding door in the forward bulkhead lay a body, face upward.
The body was that of a middle-aged, fine-looking man, his head covered with the fur, ear-lapped cap that Norwegians affect, even in the tropics. The eyes were wide open, the face discolored. In the last gasp of suffocation the set of false teeth had been forced half-way out of his mouth, distorting the countenance with a hideous simian grin. Instantly Kitchell's eye was caught by the glint of the gold in which these teeth were set.
"Here's about $100 to begin with," he exclaimed, and picking up the teeth, dropped them into his pocket with a wink at Wilbur. The body of the dead Captain was passed up through the skylight and slid out on the deck, and Wilbur and Kitchell turned their attention to what had been his stateroom.
The Captain's room was the largest one of the six staterooms opening from the main cabin.
"Here we are!" exclaimed Kitchell as he and Wilbur entered. "The old man's room, and no mistake."
Besides the bunk, the stateroom was fitted up with a lounge of red plush screwed to the bulkhead. A roll of charts leaned in one corner, an alarm clock, stopped at 1:15, stood on a shelf in the company of some dozen paper-covered novels and a drinking-glass full of cigars. Over the lounge, however, was the rack of instruments, sextant, barometer, chronometer, glass, and the like, securely screwed down, while against the wall, in front of a swivel leather chair that was ironed to the deck, was the locked secretary.
"Look at 'em, just look at 'em, will you!" said Kitchell, running his fingers lovingly over the polished brass of the instruments. "There's a thousand dollars of stuff right here. The chronometer's worth five hundred alone, Bennett & Sons' own make." He turned to the secretary.
"Now!" he exclaimed with a long breath.
What followed thrilled Wilbur with alternate excitement, curiosity, and a vivid sense of desecration and sacrilege. For the life of him he could not make the thing seem right or legal in his eyes, and yet he had neither the wish nor the power to stay his hand or interfere with what Kitchell was doing.
The Captain put the blade of the axe in the chink of the secretary's door and wrenched it free. It opened down to form a sort of desk, and disclosed an array of cubby-holes and two small doors, both locked. These latter Kitchell smashed in with the axe-head. Then he seated himself in the swivel chair and began to rifle their contents systematically, Wilbur leaning over his shoulder.
The heat from the coal below them was almost unbearable. In the cabin the six doors kept up a continuous ear-shocking fusillade, as though half a dozen men were fighting with revolvers; from without, down the open skylight, came the sing-song talk of the Chinamen and the wash and ripple of the two vessels, now side by side. The air, foul beyond expression, tasted of brass, their heads swam and ached to bursting, but absorbed in their work they had no thought of the lapse of time nor the discomfort of their surroundings. Twice during the examination of the bark's papers, Kitchell sent Wilbur out into the cabin for the whiskey decanter in the swinging racks.
"Here's the charter papers," said Kitchell, unfolding and spreading them out one by one; "and here's the clearing papers from Blyth in England. This yere's the insoorance, and here, this is--rot that, nothin' but the articles for the crew--no use to us."
In a separate envelope, carefully sealed and bound, they came upon the Captain's private papers. A marriage certificate setting forth the union between Eilert Sternersen, of Fruholmen, Norway, and Sarah Moran, of some seaport town (the name was indecipherable) of the North of England. Next came a birth certificate of a daughter named Moran, dated twenty-two years back, and a bill of sale of the bark "Lady Letty," whereby a two- thirds interest was conveyed from the previous owners (a shipbuilding firm of Christiania) to Capt. Eilert Sternersen.
"The old man was his own boss," commented Kitchell. "Hello!" he remarked, "look here"; a yellowed photograph was in his hand the picture of a stout, fair-haired woman of about forty, wearing enormous pendant earrings in the style of the early sixties. Below was written: "S. Moran Sternersen, ob. 1867."
"Old woman copped off," said Kitchell, "so much the better for us; no heirs to put in their gab; an'--hold hard--steady all--here's the will, s'help me."
The only items of importance in the will were the confirmation of the wife's death and the expressly stated bequest of "the bark known as and sailing under the name of the 'Lady Letty' to my only and beloved daughter, Moran."
"Well," said Wilbur.
The Captain sucked his mustache, then furiously, striking the desk with his fist:
"The bark's ours!" there was a certain ring of defiance in his voice. "Damn the will! I ain't so cock-sure about the law, but I'll make sure."
"As how?" said Wilbur.
Kitchell slung the will out of the open port into the sea.
"That's how," he remarked. "I'm the heir. I found the bark; mine she is, an' mine she stays--yours an' mine, that is."
But Wilbur had not even time to thoroughly enjoy the satisfaction that the Captain's words conveyed, before an idea suddenly presented itself to him. The girl he had found on board of the bark, the ruddy, fair-haired girl of the fine and hardy Norse type--that was the daughter, of course; that was "Moran." Instantly the situation adjusted itself in his imagination. The two inseparables father and daughter, sailors both, their lives passed together on ship board, and the "Lady Letty" their dream, their ambition, a vessel that at last they could call their own.
Then this disastrous voyage--perhaps the first in their new craft-- the combustion in the coal--the panic terror of the crew and their desertion of the bark, and the sturdy resolution of the father and daughter to bring the "Letty" in--to work her into port alone. They had failed; the father had died from gas; the girl, at least for the moment, was crazed from its effects. But the bark had not been abandoned. The owner was on board. Kitchell was wrong; she was no derelict; not one penny could they gain by her salvage.
For an instant a wave of bitterest disappointment passed over Wilbur as he saw his $30,000 dwindling to nothing. Then the instincts of habit reasserted themselves. The taxpayer in him was stronger than the freebooter, after all. He felt that it was his duty to see to it that the girl had her rights. Kitchell must be made aware of the situation--must be told that Moran, the daughter, the Captain's heir, was on board the schooner; that the "kid" found in the wheel-box was a girl. But on second thought that would never do. Above all things, the brute Kitchell must not be shown that a girl was aboard the schooner on which he had absolute command, nor, setting the question of Moran's sex aside, must Kitchell know her even as the dead Captain's heir. There was a difference in the men here, and Wilbur appreciated it. Kitchell, the law-abiding taxpayer, was a weakling in comparison with Kitchell, the free-booter and beach-comber in sight of his prize.
"Son," said the Captain, making a bundle of all the papers, "take these over to my bunk and hide 'em under the donkey's breakfast. Stop a bit," he added, as Wilbur started away. "I'll go with you. We'll have to bury the old man."
Throughout all the afternoon the Captain had been drinking the whiskey from the decanter found in the cabin; now he stood up unsteadily, and, raising his glass, exclaimed:
"Sonny, here's to Kitchell, Wilbur & Co., beach-combers, unlimited. What do you say, hey?"
"I only want to be sure that we've a right to the bark," answered Wilbur.
"Right to her--ri-hight to 'er," hiccoughed the Captain. "Strike me blind, I'd like to see any one try'n take her away from Alvinza Kitchell now," and he thrust out his chin at Wilbur.
"Well, so much the better, then," said Wilbur, pocketing the papers. The pair ascended to the deck.
The burial of Captain Sternersen was a dreadful business. Kitchell, far gone in whiskey, stood on the house issuing his orders, drinking from one of the decanters he had brought up with him. He had already rifled the dead man's pockets, and had even taken away the boots and fur-lined cap. Cloths were cut from the spanker and rolled around the body. Then Kitchell ordered the peak halyards unrove and used as lashings to tie the canvas around the corpse. The red and white flags (the distress signals) were still bound on the halyards.
"Leave 'em on. Leave 'em on," commanded Kitchell. "Use 'm as a shrou'. All ready now, stan' by to let her go."
Wilbur looked over at the schooner and noted with immense relief that Moran was not in sight. Suddenly an abrupt reaction took place in the Captain's addled brain.
"Can't bury 'um 'ithout 'is teeth," he gabbled solemnly. He laid back the canvas and replaced the set. "Ole man'd ha'nt me 'f I kep' 's teeth. Strike! look a' that, I put 'em in upside down. Nev' min', upsi' down, downsi' up, whaz odds, all same with ole Bill, hey, ole Bill, all same with you, hey?" Suddenly he began to howl with laughter "T' think a bein' buried with y'r teeth upsi' down. Oh, mee, but that's a good grind. Stan' by to heave ole Uncle Bill over--ready, heave, an' away she goes." He ran to the side, waving his hat and looking over. "Goo'-by, ole Bill, by-by. There you go, an' the signal o' distress roun' you, H. B. 'I'm in need of assistance.' Lord, here comes the sharks--look! look! look at um fight! look at um takin' ole Bill! I'm in need of assistance. I sh'd say you were, ole Bill."
Wilbur looked once over the side in the churning, lashing water, then drew back, sick to vomiting. But in less than thirty seconds the water was quiet. Not a shark was in sight.
"Get over t' the 'Bertha' with those papers, son," ordered Kitchell; "I'll bide here and dig up sh' mor' loot. I'll gut this ole pill-box from stern to stem-post 'fore I'll leave. I won't leave a copper rivet in 'er, notta co'er rivet, dyhear?" he shouted, his face purple with unnecessary rage.
Wilbur returned to the schooner with the two Chinamen, leaving Kitchell alone on the bark. He found the girl sitting by the rudderhead almost as he had left her, looking about her with vague, unseeing eyes.
"You name is Moran, isn't it?" he asked. "Moran Sternersen."
"Yes," she said, after a pause, then looked curiously at a bit of tarred rope on the deck. Nothing more could be got out of her. Wilbur talked to her at length, and tried to make her understand the situation, but it was evident she did not follow. However, at each mention of her name she would answer:
"Yes, yes, I'm Moran."
Wilbur turned away from her, biting his nether lip in perplexity.
"Now, what am I going to do?" he muttered. "What a situation! If I tell the Captain, it's all up with the girl. If he didn't kill her, he'd do worse--might do both. If I don't tell him, there goes her birthright, $60,000, and she alone in the world. It's begun to go already," he added, listening to the sounds that came from the bark. Kitchell was raging to and fro in the cabin in a frenzy of drink, axe in hand, smashing glassware, hacking into the wood-work, singing the while at the top of his voice:
"As through the drop I go, drop I go, As through the drop I go, drop I go, As through the drop I go, Down to hell that yawns below, Twenty stiffs all in a row Damn your eyes"
"That's the kind of man I have to deal with," muttered Wilbur. "It's encouraging, and there's no one to talk to. Not much help in a Chinaman and a crazy girl in a man's oilskins. It's about the biggest situation you ever faced, Ross Wilbur, and you're all alone. What the devil are you going to do?"
He acknowledged with considerable humiliation that he could not get the better of Kitchell, either physically or mentally. Kitchell was a more powerful man than he, and cleverer. The Captain was in his element now, and he was the commander. On shore it would have been vastly different. The city-bred fellow, with a policeman always in call, would have known how to act.
"I simply can't stand by and see that hog plundering everything she's got. What's to be done?"
And suddenly, while the words were yet in his mouth, the sun was wiped from the sky like writing from a slate, the horizon blackened, vanished, a long white line of froth whipped across the sea and came on hissing. A hollow note boomed out, boomed, swelled, and grew rapidly to a roar.
An icy chill stabbed the air. Then the squall swooped and struck, and the sky shut down over the troubled ocean like a pot-lid over a boiling pot. The schooner's fore and main sheets, that had not been made fast, unrove at the first gust and began to slat wildly in the wind. The Chinamen cowered to the decks, grasping at cleats, stays, and masts. They were helpless--paralyzed with fear. Charlie clung to a stay, one arm over his head, as though dodging a blow. Wilbur gripped the rail with his hands where he stood, his teeth set, his eyes wide, waiting for the foundering of the schooner, his only thought being that the end could not be far. He had heard of the suddenness of tropical squalls, but this had come with the abruptness of a scene-shift at a play. The schooner veered broad-on to the waves. It was the beginning of the end--another roll to the leeward like the last and the Pacific would come aboard.
"And you call yourselves sailor men! Are you going to drown like rats on a plank?" A voice that Wilbur did not know went ringing through that horrid shouting of wind and sea like the call of a bugle. He turned to see Moran, the girl of the "Lady Letty," standing erect upon the quarterdeck, holding down the schooner's wheel. The confusion of that dreadful moment, that had paralyzed the crew's senses, had brought back hers. She was herself again, savage, splendid, dominant, superb, in her wrath at their weakness, their cowardice.
Her heavy brows were knotted over her flaming eyes, her hat was gone, and her thick bands of yellow hair whipped across her face and streamed out in the wind like streamers of the northern lights. As she shouted, gesturing furiously to the men, the loose sleeve of the oilskin coat fell back, and showed her forearm, strong, round, and white as scud, the hand and wrist so tanned as to look almost like a glove. And all the while she shouted aloud, furious with indignation, raging against the supineness of the "Bertha's" crew.
"Stand by, men! stand by! Look alive, now! Make fast the stays'l halyards to the dory's warp! Now, then, unreeve y'r halyards! all clear there! pass the end for'd outside the rigging! outside! you fools! Make fast to the bits for'ard--let go y'r line--that'll do. Soh--soh. There, she's coming up."
The dory had been towing astern, and the seas combing over her had swamped her. Moran had been inspired to use the swamped boat as a sea-anchor, fastening her to the schooner's bow instead of to the stern. The "Bertha's" bow, answering to the drag, veered around. The "Bertha" stood head to the seas, riding out the squall. It was a masterpiece of seamanship, conceived and executed in the very thick of peril, and it saved the schooner.
But there was little time to think of themselves. On board the bark the sails were still set. The squall struck the "Lady Letty" squarely aback. She heeled over upon the instant; then as the top hamper carried away with a crash, eased back a moment upon an even keel. But her cargo had shifted. The bark was doomed. Through the flying spray and scud and rain Wilbur had a momentary glimpse of Kitchell, hacking at the lanyards with his axe. Then the "Lady Letty" capsized, going over till her masts were flat with the water, and in another second rolled bottom up. For a moment her keel and red iron bottom were visible through the mist of driving spoon-drift. Suddenly they sank from sight. She was gone.
And then, like the rolling up of a scroll, the squall passed, the sun returned, the sky burned back to blue, the ruggedness was smoothed from the ocean, and the warmth of the tropics closed around the "Bertha Millner," once more rolling easily on the swell of the ocean.
Of the "Lady Letty" and the drunken beach-combing Captain not a trace remained. Kitchell had gone down with his prize. The "Bertha Millner's" Chinese crew huddled forward, talking wildly, pointing and looking in a bewildered fashion over the sides.
Wilbur and Moran were left alone on the open Pacific.