The Ghost in the Crosstrees by Frank Norris
Cyrus Ryder, the President of the South Pacific Exploitation Company, had at last got hold of a "proposition"--all Ryder's schemes were, in his vernacular, "propositions"--that was not only profitable beyond precedent or belief, but that also was, wonderful to say, more or less legitimate. He had got an "island." He had not discovered it. Ryder had not felt a deck under his shoes for twenty years other than the promenade deck of the ferry-boat San Rafael, that takes him home to Berkeley every evening after "business hours." He had not discovered it, but "Old Rosemary," captain of the barkentine Scottish Chief, of Blyth, had done that very thing, and, dying before he was able to perfect the title, had made over his interest in it to his best friend and old comrade, Cyrus Ryder.
"Old Rosemary," I am told, first landed on the island--it is called Paa--in the later '60's.
He established its location and took its latitude and longitude, but as minutes and degrees mean nothing to the lay reader, let it be said that the Island of Paa lies just below the equator, some 200 miles west of the Gilberts and 1,600 miles due east from Brisbane, in Australia. It is six miles long, three wide, and because of the prevailing winds and precipitous character of the coast can only be approached from the west during December and January.
"Old Rosemary" landed on the island, raised the American flag, had the crew witness the document by virtue of which he made himself the possessor, and then, returning to San Francisco, forwarded to the Secretary of State, at Washington, application for title. This was withheld till it could be shown that no other nation had a prior claim. While "Old Rosemary" was working out the proof, he died, and the whole matter was left in abeyance till Cyrus Ryder took it up. By then there was a new Secretary in Washington and times were changed, so that the Government of Ryder's native land was not so averse toward acquiring Eastern possessions. The Secretary of State wrote to Ryder to say that the application would be granted upon furnishing a bond for $50,000; and you may believe that the bond was forthcoming.
For in the first report upon Paa, "Old Rosemary" had used the magic word "guano."
He averred, and his crew attested over their sworn statements, that Paa was covered to an average depth of six feet with the stuff, so that this last and biggest of "Cy" Ryder's propositions was a vast slab of an extremely marketable product six feet thick, three miles wide and six miles long.
But no sooner had the title been granted when there came a dislocation in the proceedings that until then had been going forward so smoothly. Ryder called the Three Black Crows to him at this juncture, one certain afternoon in the month of April. They were his best agents. The plums that the "Company" had at its disposal generally went to the trio, and if any man could "put through" a dangerous and desperate piece of work, Strokher, Hardenberg and Ally Bazan were those men.
Of late they had been unlucky, and the affair of the contraband arms, which had ended in failure of cataclysmic proportions, yet rankled in Ryder's memory, but he had no one else to whom he could intrust the present proposition and he still believed Hardenberg to be the best boss on his list.
If Paa was to be fought for, Hardenberg, backed by Strokher and Ally Bazan, was the man of all men for the job, for it looked as though Ryder would not get the Island of Paa without a fight after all, and nitrate beds were worth fighting for.
"You see, boys, it's this way," Ryder explained to the three as they sat around the spavined table in the grimy back room of Ryder's "office." "It's this way. There's a scoovy after Paa, I'm told; he says he was there before 'Rosemary,' which is a lie, and that his Gov'ment has given him title. He's got a kind of dough-dish up Portland way and starts for Paa as soon as ever he kin fit out. He's got no title, in course, but if he gits there afore we do and takes possession it'll take fifty years o' lawing an' injunctioning to git him off. So hustle is the word for you from the word 'go.' We got a good start o' the scoovy. He can't put to sea within a week, while over yonder in Oakland Basin there's the Idaho Lass, as good a schooner, boys, as ever wore paint, all ready but to fit her new sails on her. Ye kin do it in less than no time. The stores will be goin' into her while ye're workin', and within the week I expect to see the Idaho Lass showing her heels to the Presidio. You see the point now, boys. If ye beat the scoovy--his name is Petersen, and his boat is called the Elftruda--we're to the wind'ard of a pretty pot o' money. If he gets away before you do--well, there's no telling; we prob'ly lose the island."
About ten days before the morning set for their departure I went over to the Oakland Basin to see how the Three Black Crows were getting on.
Hardenberg welcomed me as my boat bumped alongside, and extending a great tarry paw, hauled me over the rail. The schooner was a wilderness of confusion, with the sails covering, apparently, nine-tenths of the decks, the remaining tenth encumbered by spars, cordage, tangled rigging, chains, cables and the like, all helter-skeltered together in such a haze of entanglements that my heart misgave me as I looked on it. Surely order would not issue from this chaos in four days' time with only three men to speed the work.
But Hardenberg was reassuring, and little Ally Bazan, the colonial, told me they would "snatch her shipshape in the shorter end o' two days, if so be they must."
I stayed with the Three Crows all that day and shared their dinner with them on the quarterdeck when, wearied to death with the strain of wrestling with the slatting canvas and ponderous boom, they at last threw themselves upon the hamper of "cold snack" I had brought off with me and pledged the success of the venture in tin dippers full of Pilsener.
"And I'm thinking," said Ally Bazan, "as 'ow ye might as well turn in along o' us on board 'ere, instead o' hykin' back to town to-night. There's a fairish set o' currents up and daown 'ere about this time o' dye, and ye'd find it a stiff bit o' rowing."
"We'll sling a hammick for you on the quarterdeck, m'son," urged Hardenberg.
And so it happened that I passed my first night aboard the Idaho Lass.
We turned in early. The Three Crows were very tired, and only Ally Bazan and I were left awake at the time when we saw the 8:30 ferryboat negotiating for her slip on the Oakland side. Then we also went to bed.
And now it becomes necessary, for a better understanding of what is to follow, to mention with some degree of particularization the places and manners in which my three friends elected to take their sleep, as well as the condition and berth of the schooner Idaho Lass.
Hardenberg slept upon the quarterdeck, rolled up in an army blanket and a tarpaulin. Strokher turned in below in the cabin upon the fixed lounge by the dining-table, while Ally Bazan stretched himself in one of the bunks in the fo'c's'le.
As for the location of the schooner, she lay out in the stream, some three or four cables' length off the yards and docks of a ship-building concern. No other ship or boat of any description was anchored nearer than at least 300 yards. She was a fine, roomy vessel, three-masted, about 150 feet in length overall. She lay head up stream, and from where I lay by Hardenberg on the quarterdeck I could see her tops sharply outlined against the sky above the Golden Gate before I went to sleep.
I suppose it was very early in the morning--nearer two than three--when I awoke. Some movement on the part of Hardenberg--as I afterward found out--had aroused me. But I lay inert for a long minute trying to find out why I was not in my own bed, in my own home, and to account for the rushing, rippling sound of the tide eddies sucking and chuckling around the Lass's rudder-post.
Then I became aware that Hardenberg was awake. I lay in my hammock, facing the stern of the schooner, and as Hardenberg had made up his bed between me and the wheel he was directly in my line of vision when I opened my eyes, and I could see him without any other movement than that of raising the eyelids. Just now, as I drifted more and more into wakefulness, I grew proportionately puzzled and perplexed to account for a singularly strange demeanour and conduct on the part of my friend.
He was sitting up in his place, his knees drawn up under the blanket, one arm thrown around both, the hand of the other arm resting on the neck and supporting the weight of his body. He was broad awake. I could see the green shine of our riding lantern in his wide-open eyes, and from time to time I could hear him muttering to himself, "What is it? What is it? What the devil is it, anyhow?" But it was not his attitude, nor the fact of his being so broad awake at the unseasonable hour, nor yet his unaccountable words, that puzzled me the most. It was the man's eyes and the direction in which they looked that startled me.
His gaze was directed not upon anything on the deck of the boat, nor upon the surface of the water near it, but upon something behind me and at a great height in the air. I was not long in getting myself broad awake.
I rolled out on the deck and crossed over to where Hardenberg sat huddled in his blankets.
"What the devil--" I began.
He jumped suddenly at the sound of my voice, then raised an arm and pointed toward the top of the foremast.
"D'ye see it?" he muttered. "Say, huh? D'ye see it? I thought I saw it last night, but I wasn't sure. But there's no mistake now. D'ye see it, Mr. Dixon?"
I looked where he pointed. The schooner was riding easily to anchor, the surface of the bay was calm, but overhead the high white sea-fog was rolling in. Against it the foremast stood out like the hand of an illuminated town clock, and not a detail of its rigging that was not as distinct as if etched against the sky.
And yet I saw nothing.
"Where?" I demanded, and again and again "where?"
"In the crosstrees," whispered Hardenberg. "Ah, look there."
He was right. Something was stirring there, something that I had mistaken for the furled tops'l. At first it was but a formless bundle, but as Hardenberg spoke it stretched itself, it grew upright, it assumed an erect attitude, it took the outlines of a human being. From head to heel a casing housed it in, a casing that might have been anything at that hour of the night and in that strange place--a shroud, if you like, a winding-sheet--anything; and it is without shame that I confess to a creep of the most disagreeable sensation I have ever known as I stood at Hardenberg's side on that still, foggy night and watched the stirring of that nameless, formless shape standing gaunt and tall and grisly and wrapped in its winding-sheet upon the crosstrees of the foremast of the Idaho Lass.
We watched and waited breathless for an instant. Then the creature on the foremast laid a hand upon the lashings of the tops'l and undid them. Then it turned, slid to the deck by I know not what strange process, and, still hooded, still shrouded, still lapped about by its mummy-wrappings, seized a rope's end. In an instant the jib was set and stood on hard and billowing against the night wind. The tops'l followed. Then the figure moved forward and passed behind the companionway of the fo'c's'le.
We looked for it to appear upon the other side, but looked in vain. We saw it no more that night.
What Hardenberg and I told each other between the time of the disappearing and the hour of breakfast I am now ashamed to recall. But at last we agreed to say nothing to the others--for the time being. Just after breakfast, however, we two had a few words by the wheel on the quarterdeck. Ally Bazan and Strokher were forward.
"The proper thing to do," said I--it was a glorious, exhilarating morning, and the sunlight was flooding every angle and corner of the schooner--"the proper thing to do is to sleep on deck by the foremast to-night with our pistols handy and interview the--party if it walks again."
"Oh, yes," cried Hardenberg heartily. "Oh, yes; that's the proper thing. Of course it is. No manner o' doubt about that, Mr. Dixon. Watch for the party--yes, with pistols. Of course it's the proper thing. But I know one man that ain't going to do no such thing."
"Well," I remember to have said reflectively, "well--I guess I know another."
But for all our resolutions to say nothing to the others about the night's occurrences, we forgot that the tops'l and jib were both set and both drawing.
"An' w'at might be the bloomin' notion o' setting the bloomin' kite and jib?" demanded Ally Bazan not half an hour after breakfast. Shamelessly Hardenberg, at a loss for an answer, feigned an interest in the grummets of the life-boat cover and left me to lie as best I might.
But it is not easy to explain why one should raise the sails of an anchored ship during the night, and Ally Bazan grew very suspicious. Strokher, too, had something to say, and in the end the whole matter came out.
Trust a sailor to give full value to anything savouring of the supernatural. Strokher promptly voted the ship a "queer old hooker anyhow, and about as seaworthy as a hen-coop." He held forth at great length upon the subject.
"You mark my words, now," he said. "There's been some fishy doin's in this 'ere vessel, and it's like somebody done to death crool hard, an' 'e wants to git away from the smell o' land, just like them as is killed on blue water. That's w'y 'e takes an' sets the sails between dark an' dawn."
But Ally Bazan was thoroughly and wholly upset, so much so that at first he could not speak. He went pale and paler while we stood talking it over, and crossed himself--he was a Catholic--furtively behind the water-butt.
"I ain't never 'a' been keen on ha'nts anyhow, Mr. Dixon," he told me aggrievedly at dinner that evening. "I got no use for 'em. I ain't never known any good to come o' anything with a ha'nt tagged to it, an' we're makin' a ill beginnin' o' this island business, Mr. Dixon--a blyme ill beginnin'. I mean to stye awyke to-night."
But if he was awake the little colonial was keeping close to his bunk at the time when Strokher and Hardenberg woke me at about three in the morning.
I rolled out and joined them on the quarterdeck and stood beside them watching. The same figure again towered, as before, gray and ominous in the crosstrees. As before, it set the tops'l; as before, it came down to the deck and raised the jib; as before, it passed out of sight amid the confusion of the forward deck.
But this time we all ran toward where we last had seen it, stumbling over the encumbered decks, jostling and tripping, but keeping wonderfully close together. It was not twenty seconds from the time the creature had disappeared before we stood panting upon the exact spot we had last seen it. We searched every corner of the forward deck in vain. We looked over the side. The moon was up. This night there was no fog. We could see for miles each side of us, but never a trace of a boat was visible, and it was impossible that any swimmer could have escaped the merciless scrutiny to which we subjected the waters of the bay in every direction.
Hardenberg and I dived down into the fo'c's'le. Ally Bazan was sound asleep in his bunk and woke stammering, blinking and bewildered by the lantern we carried.
"I sye," he cried, all at once scrambling up and clawing at our arms, "D'd the bally ha'nt show up agyne?" And as we nodded he went on more aggrievedly than ever--"Oh, I sye, y' know, I daon't like this. I eyen't shipping in no bloomin' 'ooker wot carries a ha'nt for supercargo. They waon't no good come o' this cruise--no, they waon't. It's a sign, that's wot it is. I eyen't goin' to buck again no signs--it eyen't human nature, no it eyen't. You mark my words, 'Bud' Hardenberg, we clear this port with a ship wot has a ha'nt an' we waon't never come back agyne, my hearty."
That night he berthed aft with us on the quarterdeck, but though we stood watch and watch till well into the dawn, nothing stirred about the foremast. So it was the next night, and so the night after that. When three successive days had passed without any manifestation the keen edge of the business became a little blunted and we declared that an end had been made.
Ally Bazan returned to his bunk in the fo'c's'le on the fourth night, and the rest of us slept the hours through unconcernedly.
But in the morning there were the jib and tops'l set and drawing as before.
After this we began experimenting--on Ally Bazan. We bunked him forward and we bunked him aft, for some one had pointed out that the "ha'nt" walked only at the times when the colonial slept in the fo'c's'le. We found this to be true. Let the little fellow watch on the quarterdeck with us and the night passed without disturbance. As soon as he took up his quarters forward the haunting recommenced. Furthermore, it began to appear that the "ha'nt" carefully refrained from appearing to him. He of us all had never seen the thing. He of us all was spared the chills and the harrowings that laid hold upon the rest of us during these still gray hours after midnight when we huddled on the deck of the Idaho Lass and watched the sheeted apparition in the rigging; for by now there was no more charging forward in attempts to run the ghost down. We had passed that stage long since.
But so far from rejoicing in this immunity or drawing courage therefrom, Ally Bazan filled the air with his fears and expostulations. Just the fact that he was in some way differentiated from the others--that he was singled out, if only for exemption--worked upon him. And that he was unable to scale his terrors by actual sight of their object excited them all the more.
And there issued from this a curious consequence. He, the very one who had never seen the haunting, was also the very one to unsettle what little common sense yet remained to Hardenberg and Strokher. He never allowed the subject to be ignored--never lost an opportunity of referring to the doom that o'erhung the vessel. By the hour he poured into the ears of his friends lugubrious tales of ships, warned as this one was, that had cleared from port, never to be seen again. He recalled to their minds parallel incidents that they themselves had heard; he foretold the fate of the Idaho Lass when the land should lie behind and she should be alone in midocean with this horrid supercargo that took liberties with the rigging, and at last one particular morning, two days before that which was to witness the schooner's departure, he came out flatfooted to the effect that "Gaw-blyme him, he couldn't stand the gaff no longer, no he couldn't, so help him, that if the owners were wishful for to put to sea" (doomed to some unnamable destruction) "he for one wa'n't fit to die, an' was going to quit that blessed day." For the sake of appearances, Hardenberg and Strokher blustered and fumed, but I could hear the crack in Strokher's voice as plain as in a broken ship's bell. I was not surprised at what happened later in the day, when he told the others that he was a very sick man. A congenital stomach trouble, it seemed--or was it liver complaint--had found him out again. He had contracted it when a lad at Trincomalee, diving for pearls; it was acutely painful, it appeared. Why, gentlemen, even at that very moment, as he stood there talking--Hi, yi! O Lord !--talking, it was a-griping of him something uncommon, so it was. And no, it was no manner of use for him to think of going on this voyage; sorry he was, too, for he'd made up his mind, so he had, to find out just what was wrong with the foremast, etc.
And thereupon Hardenberg swore a great oath and threw down the capstan bar he held in his hand.
"Well, then," he cried wrathfully, "we might as well chuck up the whole business. No use going to sea with a sick man and a scared man."
"An' there's the first word o' sense," cried Ally Bazan, "I've heard this long day. 'Scared,' he says; aye, right ye are, me bully."
"It's Cy Rider's fault," the three declared after a two-hours' talk. "No business giving us a schooner with a ghost aboard. Scoovy or no scoovy, island or no island, guano or no guano, we don't go to sea in the haunted hooker called the Idaho Lass."
No more they did. On board the schooner they had faced the supernatural with some kind of courage born of the occasion. Once on shore, and no money could hire, no power force them to go aboard a second time.
The affair ended in a grand wrangle in Cy Rider's back office, and just twenty-four hours later the bark Elftruda, Captain Jens Petersen, cleared from Portland, bound for "a cruise to South Pacific ports--in ballast."
* * * * *
Two years after this I took Ally Bazan with me on a duck-shooting excursion in the "Toolies" back of Sacramento, for he is a handy man about a camp and can row a boat as softly as a drifting cloud.
We went about in a cabin cat of some thirty feet over all, the rowboat towing astern. Sometimes we did not go ashore to camp, but slept aboard. On the second night of this expedient I woke in my blankets on the floor of the cabin to see the square of gray light that stood for the cabin door darkened by--it gave me the same old start--a sheeted figure. It was going up the two steps to the deck. Beyond question it had been in the cabin. I started up and followed it. I was too frightened not to--if you can see what I mean. By the time I had got the blankets off and had thrust my head above the level of the cabin hatch the figure was already in the bows, and, as a matter of course, hoisting the jib.
I thought of calling Ally Bazan, who slept by me on the cabin floor, but it seemed to me at the time that if I did not keep that figure in sight it would elude me again, and, besides, if I went back in the cabin I was afraid that I would bolt the door and remain under the bedclothes till morning. I was afraid to go on with the adventure, but I was much more afraid to go back.
So I crept forward over the deck of the sloop. The "ha'nt" had its back toward me, fumbling with the ends of the jib halyards. I could hear the creak of new ropes as it undid the knot, and the sound was certainly substantial and commonplace. I was so close by now that I could see every outline of the shape. It was precisely as it had appeared on the crosstrees of the Idaho, only, seen without perspective, and brought down to the level of the eye, it lost its exaggerated height.
It had been kneeling upon the deck. Now, at last, it rose and turned about, the end of the halyards in its hand. The light of the earliest dawn fell squarely on the face and form, and I saw, if you please, Ally Bazan himself. His eyes were half shut, and through his open lips came the sound of his deep and regular breathing.
At breakfast the next morning I asked, "Ally Bazan, did you ever walk in your sleep."
"Aye," he answered, "years ago, when I was by wye o' being a lad, I used allus to wrap the bloomin' sheets around me. An' crysy things I'd do the times. But the 'abit left me when I grew old enough to tyke me whisky strite and have hair on me fyce."
I did not "explain away" the ghost in the crosstrees either to Ally Bazan or to the other two Black Crows. Furthermore, I do not now refer to the Island of Paa in the hearing of the trio. The claims and title of Norway to the island have long since been made good and conceded--even by the State Department at Washington--and I understand that Captain Petersen has made a very pretty fortune out of the affair.