Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
VI. A Sea Mystery
In spite of his best efforts at self-control, Wilbur felt a slow, cold clutch at his heart. That sickening, uncanny lifting of the schooner out of the glassy water, at a time when there was not enough wind to so much as wrinkle the surface, sent a creep of something very like horror through all his flesh.
Again he peered over the side, down into the kelp-thickened sea. Nothing--not a breath of air was stirring. The gray light that flooded down from the stars showed not a break upon the surface of Magdalena Bay. On shore, nothing moved.
"Quiet there, forward," called Moran to the shrill-voiced coolies.
The succeeding stillness was profound. All on board listened intently. The water dripped like the ticking of a clock from the "Bertha Millner's" stern, which with the rising of the bow had sunk almost to the rail. There was no other sound.
"Strange," muttered Moran, her brows contracting.
Charlie broke the silence with a wail: "No likee, no likee!" he cried at top voice.
The man had gone suddenly green; Wilbur could see the shine of his eyes distended like those of a harassed cat. As he, Moran, and Wilbur stood in the schooner's waist, staring at each other, the smell of punk came to their nostrils. Forward, the coolies were already burning joss-sticks on the fo'castle head, kowtowing their foreheads to the deck.
Moran went forward and kicked them to their feet and hurled their joss-sticks into the sea.
"Feng shui! Feng shui!" they exclaimed with bated breaths. "The Feng shui no likee we."
Low in the east the horizon began to blacken against the sky. It was early morning. A watch was set, the Chinamen sent below, and until daybreak, when Charlie began to make a clattering of tins in the galley as he set about preparing breakfast, Wilbur paced the rounds of the schooner, looking, listening, and waiting again for that slow, horrifying lift. But the rest of the night was without incident.
After breakfast, the strangely assorted trio--Charlie, Moran, and Wilbur--held another conference in the cabin. It was decided to move the schooner to the other side of the bay.
"Feng shui in disa place, no likee we," announced Charlie.
"Feng shui, who are they?"
Charlie promptly became incoherent on this subject, and Moran and Wilbur could only guess that the Feng shui were the tutelary deities that presided over that portion of Magdalena Bay. At any rate, there were evidently no more shark to be caught in that fishing-ground; so sail was made, and by noon the "Bertha Millner" tied up to the kelp on the opposite side of the inlet, about half a mile from the shore.
The shark were plentiful here and the fishing went forward again as before. Certain of these shark were hauled aboard, stunned by a blow on the nose, and their fins cut off. The Chinamen packed these fins away in separate kegs. Eventually they would be sent to China.
Two or three days passed. The hands kept steadily at their work. Nothing more occurred to disturb the monotony of the scorching days and soundless nights; the schooner sat as easily on the unbroken water as though built to the bottom. Soon the night watch was discontinued. During these days the three officers lived high. Turtle were plentiful, and what with their steaks and soups, the fried abalones, the sea-fish, the really delicious shark-fins, and the quail that Charlie and Wilbur trapped along the shore, the trio had nothing to wish for in the way of table luxuries.
The shore was absolutely deserted, as well as the back country--an unbroken wilderness of sand and sage. Half a dozen times, Wilbur, wearying of his inaction aboard the schooner, made the entire circuit of the bay from point to point. Standing on one of the latter projections and looking out to the west, the Pacific appeared as empty of life as the land. Never a keel cut those waters, never a sail broke the edge of the horizon, never a feather of smoke spotted the sky where it whitened to meet the sea. Everything was empty--vast, unspeakably desolate-- palpitating with heat.
Another week passed. Charlie began to complain that the shark were growing scarce again.
"I think bime-by him go away, once a mo'."
That same night, Wilbur, lying in his hammock, was awakened by a touch on his arm. He woke to see Moran beside him on the deck.
"Did you hear anything?" she said in a low voice, looking at him under her scowl.
"No! no!" he exclaimed, getting up, reaching for his wicker sandals. "Did you?"
"I thought so--something. Did you feel anything?"
"I've been asleep, I haven't noticed anything. Is it beginning again?"
"The schooner lifted again, just now, very gently. I happened to be awake or I wouldn't have noticed it." They were talking in low voices, as is the custom of people speaking in the dark.
"There, what's that?" exclaimed Wilbur under his breath. A gentle vibration, barely perceptible, thrilled through the schooner. Under his hand, that was clasped upon the rail, Wilbur could feel a faint trembling in her frame. It stopped, began again, and died slowly away.
"Well, what the devil is it?" he muttered impatiently, trying to master the returning creep of dread.
Moran shook her head, biting her lip.
"It's beyond me," she said, frowning. "Can you see anything?" The sky, sea, and land were unbroken reaches of solitude. There was no breath of wind.
"Listen," said Moran. Far off to landward came the faint, sleepy clucking of a quail, and the stridulating of unnumbered crickets; a long ripple licked the slope of the beach and slid back into the ocean. Wilbur shook his head.
"Don't hear anything," he whispered. "Sh--there--she's trembling again."
Once more a prolonged but faint quivering ran through the "Bertha Millner" from stem to stern, and from keel to masthead. There was a barely audible creaking of joints and panels. The oil in the deck-tubs trembled. The vibration was so fine and rapid that it tickled the soles of Wilbur's feet as he stood on the deck.
"I'd give two fingers to know what it all means," murmured Moran in a low voice. "I've been to sea for--" Then suddenly she cried aloud: "Steady all, she's lifting again!"
The schooner heaved slowly under them, this time by the stern. Up she went, up and up, while Wilbur gripped at a stay to keep his place, and tried to choke down his heart, that seemed to beat against his palate.
"God!" ejaculated Moran, her eyes blazing. "This thing is--" The "Bertha" came suddenly down to an easy keel, rocking in that glassy sea as if in a tide rip. The deck was awash with oil. Far out in the bay the ripples widening from the schooner blurred the reflections of the stars. The Chinamen swarmed up the hatch-way, voluble and shrill. Again the "Bertha Millner" lifted and sank, the tubs sliding on the deck, the masts quivering like reeds, the timbers groaning aloud with the strain. In the stern something cracked and smashed. Then the trouble died away, the ripples faded into the ocean, and the schooner settled to her keel, quite motionless.
"Look," said Moran, her face toward the "Bertha's" stern. "The rudder is out of the gudgeons." It was true--the "Bertha Millner's" helm was unshipped.
There was no more sleep for any one on board that night. Wilbur tramped the quarterdeck, sick with a feeling he dared not put a name to. Moran sat by the wrecked rudder-head, a useless pistol in her hand, swearing under her breath from time to time. Charlie appeared on the quarterdeck at intervals, looked at Wilbur and Moran with wide-open eyes, and then took himself away. On the forward deck the coolies pasted strips of red paper inscribed with mottoes upon the mast, and filled the air with the reek of their joss-sticks.
"If one could only see what it was," growled Moran between her clinched teeth. "But this--this damned heaving and trembling, it-- it's queer."
"That's it, that's it," said Wilbur quickly, facing her. "What are we going to do, Moran?"
"Stick it out!" she exclaimed, striking her knee with her fist. "We can't leave the schooner--I won't leave her. I'll stay by this dough-dish as long as two planks in her hold together. Were you thinking of cutting away?" She fixed him with her frown.
Wilbur looked at her, sitting erect by the disabled rudder, her head bare, her braids of yellow hair hanging over her breast, sitting there in man's clothes and man's boots, the pistol at her side. He shook his head.
"I'm not leaving the 'Bertha' till you do," he answered; adding: "I'll stand by you, mate, until we--"
"Feel that?" said Moran, holding up a hand.
A fine, quivering tremble was thrilling through every beam of the schooner, vibrating each rope like a harp-string. It passed away; but before either Wilbur or Moran could comment upon it recommenced, this time much more perceptibly. Charlie dashed aft, his queue flying.
"W'at makum heap shake?" he shouted; "w'at for him shake? No savvy, no likee, pretty much heap flaid; aie-yah, aie-yah!"
Slowly the schooner heaved up as though upon the crest of some huge wave, slowly it settled, and again gradually lifted till Wilbur had to catch at the rail to steady his footing. The quivering sensation increased so that their very teeth chattered with it. Below in the cabin they could hear small objects falling from the shelves and table. Then with a sudden drop the "Bertha" fell back to her keel again, the spilled oil spouting from her scuppers, the masts rocking, the water churning and splashing from her sides.
And that was all. There was no sound--nothing was in sight. There was only the frightened trembling of the little schooner and that long, slow heave and lift.
Morning came, and breakfast was had in silence and grim perplexity. It was too late to think of getting away, now that the rudder was disabled. The "Bertha Millner" must bide where she was.
"And a little more of this dancing," exclaimed Moran, "and we'll have the planks springing off the stern-post."
Charlie nodded solemnly. He said nothing--his gravity had returned. Now in the glare of the tropical day, with the "Bertha Millner" sitting the sea as placidly as a brooding gull, he was Talleyrand again.
"I tinkum yas," he said vaguely.
"Well, I think we had better try and fix the rudder and put back to Frisco," said Moran. "You're making no money this way. There are no shark to be caught. Something's wrong. They're gone away somewhere. The crew are eating their heads off and not earning enough money to pay for their keep. What do you think?"
"I tinkum yas."
"Then we'll go home. Is that it?"
"I tinkum yas--to-molla."
"That's settled then," persisted Moran, surprised at his ready acquiescence; "we start home to-morrow?" Charlie nodded.
"To-molla," he said.
The rudder was not so badly damaged as they had at first supposed; the break was easily mended, but it was found necessary for one of the men to go over the side.
"Get over the side here, Jim," commanded Moran. "Charlie, tell him what's wanted; we can't work the pintle in from the deck."
But Charlie shook his head.
"Him no likee go; him plenty much flaid."
Moran ripped out an oath.
"What do I care if he's afraid! I want him to shove the pintle into the lower gudgeon. My God," she exclaimed, with immense contempt, "what carrion! I'd sooner work a boat with she-monkeys. Mr. Wilbur, I shall have to ask you to go over. I thought I was captain here, but it all depends on whether these rats are afraid or not."
"Plenty many shark," expostulated Charlie. "Him flaid shark come back, catchum chop-chop."
"Stand by here with a couple of cutting-in spades," cried Moran, "and fend off if you see any shark; now, then, are you ready, mate?"
Wilbur took his determination in both hands, threw off his coat and sandals, and went over the stern rail.
"Put your ear to the water," called Moran from above; "sometimes you can hear their flukes."
It took but a minute to adjust the pintle, and Wilbur regained the deck again, dripping and a little pale. He knew not what horrid form of death might have been lurking for him down below there underneath the kelp. As he started forward for dry clothes he was surprised to observe that Moran was smiling at him, holding out her hand.
"That was well done," she said, "and thank you. I've seen older sailor-men than you who wouldn't have taken the risk." Never before had she appeared more splendid in his eyes than at this moment. After changing his clothes in the fo'castle, he sat for a long time, his chin in his hands, very thoughtful. Then at length, as though voicing the conclusion of his reflections, said aloud, as he rose to his feet:
"But, of course, that is out of the question."
He remembered that they were going home on the next day. Within a fortnight he would be in San Francisco again--a taxpayer, a police-protected citizen once more. It had been good fun, after all, this three weeks' life on the "Bertha Millner," a strange episode cut out from the normal circle of his conventional life. He ran over the incidents of the cruise--Kitchell, the turtle hunt, the finding of the derelict, the dead captain, the squall, and the awful sight of the sinking bark, Moran at the wheel, the grewsome business of the shark-fishing, and last of all that inexplicable lifting and quivering of the schooner. He told himself that now he would probably never know the explanation of that mystery.
The day passed in preparations to put to sea again. The deck-tubs and hogsheads were stowed below and the tackle cleared away. By evening all was ready; they would be under way by daybreak the next morning. There was a possibility of their being forced to tow the schooner out by means of the dory, so light were the airs inside. Once beyond the heads, however, they were sure of a breeze.
About ten o'clock that night, the same uncanny trembling ran through the schooner again, and about half an hour later she lifted gently once or twice. But after that she was undisturbed.
Later on in the night--or rather early in the morning--Wilbur woke suddenly in his hammock without knowing why, and got up and stood listening. The "Bertha Millner" was absolutely quiet. The night was hot and still; the new moon, canted over like a sinking galleon, was low over the horizon. Wilbur listened intently, for now at last he heard something.
Between the schooner and the shore a gentle sound of splashing came to his ears, and an occasional crack as of oars in their locks. Was it possible that a boat was there between the schooner and the land? What boat, and manned by whom?
The creaking of oarlocks and the dip of paddles was unmistakable.
Suddenly Wilbur raised his voice in a great shout:
There was no answer; the noise of oars grew fainter. Moran came running out of her cabin, swinging into her coat as she ran.
"What is it--what is it?"
"A boat, I think, right off the schooner here. Hark--there--did you hear the oars?"
"You're right; call the hands, get the dory over, we'll follow that boat right up. Hello, forward there, Charlie, all hands, tumble out!"
Then Wilbur and Moran caught themselves looking into each other's eyes. At once something--perhaps the latent silence of the schooner--told them there was to be no answer. The two ran for- ward: Moran swung herself into the fo'castle hatch, and without using the ladder dropped to the deck below. In an instant her voice came up the hatch:
"The bunks are empty--they're gone--abandoned us." She came up the ladder again.
"Look," said Wilbur, as she regained the deck. "The dory's gone; they've taken it. It was our only boat; we can't get ashore."
"Cowardly, superstitious rats, I should have expected this. They would be chopped in bits before they would stay longer on board this boat--they and their-Feng shui."
When morning came the deserters could be made out camped on the shore, near to the beached dory. What their intentions were could not be conjectured. Ridden with all manner of nameless Oriental superstitions, it was evident that the Chinamen preferred any hazard of fortune to remaining longer upon the schooner.
"Well, can we get along without them?" said Wilbur. "Can we two work the schooner back to port ourselves?"
"We'll try it on, anyhow, mate," said Moran; "we might get her into San Diego, anyhow."
The Chinamen had left plenty of provisions on board, and Moran cooked breakfast. Fortunately, by eight o'clock a very light westerly breeze came up. Moran and Wilbur cast off the gaskets and set the fore and main sails.
Wilbur was busy at the forward bitts preparing to cast loose from the kelp, and Moran had taken up her position at the wheel when suddenly she exclaimed:
"Sail ho!--and in God's name what kind of a sail do you call it?"
In fact a strange-looking craft had just made her appearance at the entrance of Magdalena Bay.