The Story of the Alcazar by Mary Hallock Foote
It was told by Captain John to a boy from the mainland who was spending the summer on the Island, as they sat together one August evening at sunset, on a broken bowsprit which had once been a part of the Alcazar.
It was dead low water in Southwest Harbor, a land-locked inlet that nearly cut the Island in two, and was the gateway through which the fishing-craft from the village at the harbor head found their way out into the great Penobscot Bay. There were many days during the stern winter and bleak spring months when the gate was blocked with ice or veiled in fog, but nature relented a little toward the Island folk in the fall and sent them sunny days for their late, scant harvesting, and steady winds for the mackerel-fishing, to give them a little hope before the winter set in sharp with the equinoctial. Now, at low tide, the bright gateway shone wide open, as if to let out the waters that rise and fall ten feet in the inlet. You could look far out, beyond the lighthouse on Creenlaw's Neck and the islands that throng the mouth of the harbor, to the red spot of flame the sunset had kindled below the rack of smoke-gray clouds. The color burned in a dull gleam upon the water, broken by the dark shapes of shadowy islands; the sail-boats at anchor in the muddy, glistening flats leaned over disconsolately on their sides, in despair of ever again feeling the thrill of the returning waters beneath their keels; and the gray, weather-beaten houses crowded together on the brink of the cliff above the beach, looking like a group of hooded old women watching for a belated sail, seemed to have caught the expression of their inmates' lives. At high tide the hulk of the Alcazar had been full of water, which was now pouring out through a hole in the planking of her side in a continuous, murmurous stream, like the voice of a persistent talker in a silent company. The old ship looked much too big for her narrow grave at the foot of the green cliff, in which her anchor was deeply sunk and half overgrown with thistles. Her blunt bow and the ragged stump of the figure-head rose, dark and high, above the wet beach where Captain John sat with his absorbed listener. There were rifts about her rail where the red sunset looked through. Her naked sides, that for years had been moistened only by the perennial rains and snows, showed rough and scaly like the armor of some fabled sea-monster. She was tethered to the cliff by her rusty anchor-chain that swung across the space between, serving as a clothes-line for the draggled driftweed left by the receding tide to dry.
"She was a big ship for these parts," Captain John was saying. "There wan't one like her ever come into these waters before. Lord! folks come down from the Neck, and from Green's Landin', and Nor'east Harbor, and I don't know but they come from the main, to see her when she was fust towed in. And such work as they made of her name! Some called it one way and some another. It's a kind of a Cubian name, they say. I expect there ain't anybody round here that can call it right. However 'twas, old Cap'n Green took and pried it off her starboard quarter, and somebody got hold of it and nailed it up over the blacksmith's shop; and there you can see it now. The old cap'n named her the Stranger when he had her refitted. May be you could make out the tail of an S on her stern if you could git around there. That name's been gone these forty year; seem's if she never owned to it, and it didn't stick to her. She was never called anythin' but the Alcazar, long as ever I knew her, and I expect I know full's much about her as anybody round here. 'Twas a-settin' here on this very beach at low water, just's we be now, that the old man told me fust how he picked her up. It took a wonderful holt on him, there's no doubt about that. He told it to me more 'n once before the time come when he was to put the finish on to it; but in a gen'ral way the cap'n wan't much of a talker, and he was shy of this partic'lar business, for reasons that I expect nobody knows much about. But a man most always likes to talk to somebody, no matter how close-mouthed he may be. 'Twas just about this time o' year, fall of '27, the year Parson Flavor was ordained, Cap'n Green had gone a-mack'rel-fishin' with his two boys off Isle au Haut, and they did think o' cruisin' out into Frenchman's Bay if the weather hel' steady. They was havin' fair luck, hangin' round the island off and on for a matter of a week, when it thickened up a little and set in foggy, and for two days they didn't see the shore. The second evenin' the wind freshened from the south'ard and east'ard and drove the fog in shore a bit, and the sun, just before he set, looked like a big yellow ball through the fog and made a sickly kind of a glimmer over the water. They was a-lyin' at anchor, and all of a sudden, right to the wind'ard of 'em, this old ship loomed up, driftin' in with the wind and flood-tide. They couldn't make her out, and I guess for a minute the old cap'n didn't know but it was the Flyin' Dutchman; but she hadn't a rag o' sail on her, and as she got nearer they could see there wan't a man on board. The cap'n didn't like the looks of her, but he knew she wan't no phantom, and he and one of his boys down with the punt and went alongside. 'Twan't more 'n a quarter of a mile to her. They hailed and couldn't git no answer. They knew she was a furriner by her build, and she must 'a' been a long time at sea by her havin' barnacles on her nigh as big's a mack'rel kit. Finally, they pulled up to her fore--chains and clum aboard of her. I never see a ship abandoned at sea, myself, but I ain't no doubt but what it made 'em feel kind o' shivery when they looked aft along her decks, and not a soul in sight, and every-thin' bleached, and gray, and iron-rusted, and the riggin' all slack and white's though it had been chawed, and nothin' left of her sails but some old rags flappin' like a last year's scarecrow. They went and looked in the fo'k'sel: there wan't nothin' there but some chists, men's chists, with a little old beddin' left in the bunks. They went down the companion-way: cabin-door unlocked, everything in there as nat'ral's though it had just been left, only 'twas kind o' mouldy-smellin'. I expect the cap'n give a kind of a start as he looked around. 'Twan't no old greasy whaler's cabin, nor no packet-ship neither. There wan't many craft like her on the seas in them days. She was fixed up inside more like a gentleman's yacht is now. Merchantmen in them days didn't have their Turkey carpets and their colored wine-glasses jinglin' in the racks. While they was explorin' round in there, movin' round kind o' cautious, the door of the cap'n's stateroom swung open with a creak, just's though somebody was a-shovin' it slow like, and the ship give a kind of a stir and a rustlin', moanin' sound, as if she was a-comin' to life. The old man never made no secret but what he was scairt when he went through her that night. 'Twan't so much what he said as the way he looked when he told it. I expect he thought he'd seen enough, about the time that door blew open. He said he knowed 'twas nothin' but a puff o' wind struck her, and that he'd better be a-gittin' on to his own craft before he lost her in the fog. So he went back and got under weigh, and sent a line aboard of the stranger and took her in tow, and all that night with a good southeast wind they kept a-movin' toward home. The old man was kind o' res'less and wakeful, walkin' the decks and lookin' over the stern at the big ship follerin' him like a ghost. The moonlight was a little dull with fog, but he could see her, plain, a-comin' on before the wind with her white riggin' and bare poles, and hear the water sousin' under her bows. He said 'twas in his mind more 'n a dozen times to cut her adrift. You see he had his misgivin's about her from the fust, though he never let on what they was; but he hung on to her as a man will, sometimes, agin feelin's that have more sense in 'em than reason, like as not. He knew everybody at the Harbor would laugh at him for lettin' go such a prize as that just for a notion, and it wan't his way, you may be sure; he didn't need no one to tell him what she was wuth. Anyhow he hung to her, and next day they beached her at high water, right over there by the old ship-yard. He took Deacon S'lvine and his brother-in-law, Cap'n Purse--Pierce they call it nowadays, but in the cap'n's time 'twas Purse. That sounds kind o' broad and comfortable, like the cap'n's wescoat; but the family's thinnin' down a good deal lately and gettin' kind o' sharp and lean, and may be Pierce is more suitable. But 's I was sayin', Cap'n Green took them two--cheerful, loud-talkin' men they was both of 'em--aboard of her to go through her, for he hadn't no notion o' goin' into that cap'n's stateroom alone, even in broad daylight; but 'twan't there the secret of her lay; there wan't nothin' in there to scare anybody. She was trimmed up, I tell you, just elegant. Real mahogany, none of your veneerin', but the real stuff; lace curt'ins to the berth, lace on the pillows, and a satin coverlid, rumpled up as though the cap'n had just turned out; and there was his slippers handy--the greatest-lookin' slippers for a man you ever saw. They wouldn't 'a' been too big for the neatest-footed woman in the Harbor. But Land! they was just thick with mould, and so was everythin' in the place, even to an old gittar with the strings most rotted off of it, and the picters of fur-rin-lookin' women on the walls,--trinin'-lookin' creeturs most of 'em. They hunted all through his desk, but couldn't find no log. 'Twas plain enough that whoever'd left that ship had took pains that she shouldn't tell no tales, and 'twan't long before they found out the reason.
"When they come to go below,--there was considerable of a crowd on deck by that time, standin' round while they knocked out the keys and took off the fore-hatch,--Cap'n Green called on Cap'n Purse and the deacon to go down with him; but they didn't 'pear to be very anxious, and the old man wan't goin' to hang back for company with everybody lookin' at him, so he lit a candle and went down, and the folks crowded round and waited for him. I was there myself, 's close to him as I be to that fish barrel, when he come up, his face white 's a sheet and the candle shakin' in his hand, and sot down on the hatch-combin'.
"'Give me room!' says he, kind o' leanin' back on the crowd. 'Give me air, can't you? She's full o' dead niggers. She's a slaver.'
"Now, 'twas the talk pretty gen'rally that the cap'n had had a hand in that business himself in his early days, and that it set uncomfortable on him afterwards. It never was known how he'd got his money. He didn't have any to begin with. He was always a kind of a lone bird and dug his way along up somehow. Nobody knows what was workin' on him while he sot there; he looked awful sick. It was kind of quiet for a minute, but them that couldn't see him kep' pushin' for'ards and callin' out: 'What d'you see? What's down there?' And them close by wanted to know, all talkin' to once, why he thought she was a slaver, and how long the niggers had been dead. Lord! what a fuss there was. Everybody askin' the foolishest questions, and crowdin' and squeezin', and them in front pushin' back away from the hatchway, as if they expected the dead would rise and walk out o' that black hole where they'd laid so long. They couldn't get much out o' the old man, except that there was skel'tons scattered all over the after hold, and that he knew she was a slaver by the way she was fixed up. 'How'd he know?' folks asked amongst themselves; but nobody liked to ask the cap'n. As for how long them Africans had been dead, they had to find that out for themselves,--all they ever did find out,--for the cap'n wouldn't talk about it, and he wouldn't go down in her again. It 'peared's if he was satisfied.
"Wal, it made a terrible stir in the place. As I tell you, they come from fifty mile around to see her. They had it all in the papers. Some had one idee and some another about the way she come to be abandoned, all in good shape and them human bein's in her hold. Some said ship-fever, some said mutiny; but when they come to look her over and found there wan't a water-cask aboard of her that hadn't s'runk up and gone to pieces, they settled down on the notion that she was a Spanish or a Cubian slaver, or may be a Portagee, got short o' water in the horse-latitudes; cap'n and crew left her in the boats, and the niggers--Lord! it makes a body sick to think o' them. That was always my the'ry 'bout her--short o' water; but some folks wan't satisfied 'thout somethin' more ex-citin'. 'Twan't enough for 'em to have all them creeturs dyin' down there by inches. They stuck to it about some blood-stains on the linin' in her hold, but I tell you the difference between old blood-stains and rust that's may be ten or fifteen years old's might' hard to tell.
"Nobody knows what the old cap'n was thinkin' about in them days. 'Twas full three month or more 'fore he went aboard of her ag'in. He let it be known about that he wanted to sell her, but he couldn't git an offer even; nobody seemed to want to take hold of her. Winter set in early and the ice blocked her in, and there she lay, the lonesomest thing in sight. You never see no child'n climbin' 'round on her, and there was a story that queer noises like moanin' and clankin' of chains come out of her on windy nights; but it might 'a' been the ice, crowdin' as she careened over and back with the risin' and fallin' tide. But when spring opened, folks used to see the old cap'n hangin' round the ship-yard and lookin' her over at low tide, where the ice had cut the barnacles off of her.
"One night in the store he figgered up how much lumber she'd carry from Bangor, and 'twan't long 'fore he had a gang o' men at work on her. It seemed's though he was kind of infatuated with her. He was 'fraid of her, but he couldn't let her alone. And she was a mighty well-built craft. Floridy pine and live-oak and mahogany from the Mosquito coast; built in Cadiz, most likely. Look at her now--she don't look to home here, does she? She never did. She's as much like our harbor craft as one o' them big, yallow-eyed, bare-necked buzzards is to one o' these here little sand-peeps. But she was a handsome vessel. Them live-oak ribs'll outlast your time, if you was to live to be old."
The two faces looked up at the hulk of the Alcazar,--the blanched, wave-worn messenger sent by the tropic seas into the far North with a tale that the living had never dared to tell, and that had perished on the lips of the dead. Its shadow, spreading broad upon the beach, made the gathering twilight deeper. Out on the harbor the pale saffron light lingered, long after the red had faded. How many tides had ebbed and flowed since the old ship, chained at the foot of the cliff, had warmed in the waters of the Gulf her bare, corrugated sides, warped by the frosts, stabbed by the ice of pitiless Northern winters! Where were the sallow, dark-bearded faces that had watched from her high poop the brief twilights die on that "unshadowed main," which a century ago was the scene of some of the wildest romances and blackest crimes in maritime history--the bright, restless bosom that warmed into life a thousand serpents whose trail could be traced through the hot, flower-scented Southern plazas and courts into the peaceful white villages of the North!
"Sho! I'd no idee 'twas a-gittin' on so late," said Captain John. "There ain't anybody watchin' out for me. I kin put my family under my hat, but I don' know what your folks'll think's come o' you.
"Wal, the rest on 'twon't take long to tell. The old man had her fitted up in good shape by the time the ice was out of the river, and run her up to Bangor in ballast, and loaded her there for New York. He had an ugly trip down the coast: lost his deck load and three men overboard in a southeaster off Nantucket Shoals. It made the whole ship's company feel pretty solemn, but the old man took it the hardest of any of 'em, and from that time seems as if he lost his grip; the old scare settled back on him blacker 'n ever. There wan't a man aboard of her that liked her. They all knew her story, that she was the Alcazar from nobody knows where, instead of the Stranger from Newburyport. The cap'n had Newburyport put on to her because he was a Newburyport man and all his vessels was built there. But she hadn't more 'n touched the dock in New York before every one on 'em left her, even to the cook. 'I'm leery o' this 'ere ship,' says one big Cornishman. 'No better than a floatin' coffin, anyway,' was what they all said of her; and I guess the cap'n would 'a' left her right there himself if it hadn't been for the money he'd put into her. I expect he was a little too fond of money, may be; but I've knowed others just as sharp's the old cap'n that didn't seem to have his luck. The mate saw him two or three times while he was a-lyin' in New York, and noticed he was drinkin' more 'n usual. He come home light and anchored off the bar, just as a southeaster was a-comin' on. It wouldn't 'a' been no trouble for him to have laid there, if he'd had good ground-gear; but there 'twas ag'in, he'd been a leetle too savin'. He'd used the old cables he found in her. The new mate didn't know nothin' about her, and he put out one anchor. The cap'n had taken a kag o' New England rum aboard and been drawin' on it pretty reg'lar all the way up, and as the gale come on he got kind o' wild and went at it harder 'n ever. About midnight the cable parted. They let go the other anchor, but it didn't snub her for a minute, and she swung, broadside to, on to the bar. The men clum into the riggin' before she struck, but the old cap'n was staggerin' 'round decks, kind o' dazed and dumb-like, not tryin' to do anythin' to save himself. The mate tried to git him into the riggin', seein' he wan't in no condition to look out for himself; but the old man struck loose from his holt and cried out to him through the noise:--
"'Let me alone! I've got to go with her. I tell ye I've got to go with her!'
"The mate just had time to swing himself back into the mizzen-shrouds before the sea broke over her and left the decks bare. The old ship pounded over the bar in an hour or so, and drifted up here on to the beach where she is now. Every man on board was saved except the cap'n. He 'went with her,' sure enough.
"There was talk enough about that thing before they got done with it to 'a' made the old man roll in his grave. They raked up all the stories about his cruisin' on the Spanish main when he was a young man. They wan't stories he'd ever told; he wan't much of a hand to talk about what he'd seen and done on his v'yages. They never let him rest till 'twas pretty much the gen'ral belief, and is to this day, that he knew more about that slaver from the first than he ever owned to.
"I never had much to say about it, but 'twas plain enough to me. I had my suspicions the mornin' he towed her in. He looked terrible shattered. It 'peared to me he wan't ever the same man afterwards.
"'I've got to go with her!' Them was his last words. He knew that ship and him belonged together, same as a man and his sins. He knew she'd been a-huntin' him up and down the western ocean for twenty year, with them dead o' his'n in her hold,--and she'd hunted him down at last."
Captain John paused with this peroration: he dug a hole in the wet sand with the toe of his boot, and watched it slowly fill.
"'Twas a bait most any one would 'a' smelt of, a six-hundred-ton ship and every timber in her sound; but you'd 'a' thought he'd been more cautious, knowin' what he did of her. She was bound to have him, though."
"Captain John," said the boy, a little hoarse from his long silence, "what do you suppose it was he did? Anything except just leave them--the negroes, I mean?"
"Lord! Wan't that enough? To steal 'em, and then leave 'em there--battened down like rats in the hold! However, I expect there ain't anybody that can tell you the whole of that story. It's one of them mysteries that rests with the dead.
"The new mate--the young fellow he brought on from New York--he married the cap'n's daughter. None o' the Harbor boys ever seemed to jibe in with her. I always had a notion that she was a touch above most of 'em, but she and her mother was as good as a providence to them shipwrecked men when they was throwed ashore, strangers in the place and no money; and it ended in Rachel's takin' up with the mate and the whole family's leavin' the place. It was long after all the talk died away that the widow come back and lived here in the same quiet way she always had, till she was laid alongside the old cap'n. There wan't a better woman ever walked this earth than Mary Green, that was Mary Spofford."
Captain John rose from the bowsprit and rubbed his cramped knees before climbing the hill. He parted with his young listener at the top and took a lonely path across the shore-pasture to a little cabin, where no light shone, built like the nest of a sea-bird on the edge of high-water mark.
On the gray beach below, a small, dingy yawl, with one sail loosely bundled over the thwarts, leaned toward the door-latch as if listening for its click. It had an almost human expression of patient though wistful waiting. It was the poorest boat in the Harbor; it had no name painted on its stern, but Captain John, in the solitude of his watery wanderings among the islands and channels of the bay, always called her the Mary Spofford. The boy from the main went home slowly along the village street toward the many-windowed house in which his mother and sisters were boarding. There were voices, calling and singing abroad on the night air, reflected from the motionless, glimmering sheet of dark water below as from a sounding-board. Cow-bells tinkled away among the winding paths along the low, dim shores. The night-call of the heron from the muddy flats struck sharply across the stillness, and from the outer bay came the murmur of the old ground-swell, which never rests, even in the calmest weather.