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CAPTAIN SELOVER LOSES HIS NERVE
I lived in the place for three weeks. We were afoot shortly after daybreak, under way by sun-up, and at work before the heats began. Three of us worked on the buildings, and the rest formed a pack train carrying all sorts of things from the shore to the valley. The men grumbled fiercely at this, but Captain Selover drove them with slight regard for their opinions or feelings.
"You're getting double pay," was his only word, "earn it!"
They certainly earned it during those three weeks. The things they brought up were astounding. Besides a lot of scientific apparatus and chests of chemical supplies, everything that could possibly be required, had been provided by that omniscient young man. After we had built a long, low structure, windows were forthcoming, shelves, tables, sinks, faucets, forges, burners, all cut out, fitted and ready to put together, each with its proper screws, nails, clamps, or pipes ready to our hands. When we had finished, we had constructed as complete a laboratory on a small scale as you could find on a college campus, even to the stone pillar down to bed-rock for delicate microscopic experiments, and hot and cold water led from the springs. And we were utterly unskilled. It was all Percy Darrow.
I was toward the last engaged in screwing on a fixture for the generation of acetelyne gas.
"Darrow," said I, "there's one thing you've overlooked; you forgot to bring a cupola and a gilt weather-cock for this concern."
After the laboratory was completed, we put up sleeping quarters for the two men, with wide porches well screened, and a square, heavy storeroom. By the end of the third week we had quite finished.
Dr. Schermerhorn had turned with enthusiasm to the unpacking of his chemical apparatus. Almost immediately at the close of the freight-carrying, he had appeared, lugging his precious chest, this time suffering the assistance of Darrow, and had camped on the spot. We could not induce him to leave, so we put up a tent for him. Darrow remained with him by way of safety against the men, whose measure, I believe, he had taken. Now that all the work was finished, the doctor put in a sudden appearance.
"Percy," said he, "now we will have the defence built."
He dragged us with him to the narrow part of the arroyo, just before it rose to the level of the valley.
"Here we will build the stockade-defence," he announced.
Darrow and I stared at each other blankly.
"What for, sir?" inquired the assistant.
"I haf come to be undisturbed," announced the doctor, with owl-like, Teutonic gravity, "and I will not be disturbed."
Darrow nodded to me and drew his principal aside.
They conversed earnestly for several minutes. Then the assistant returned to me.
"No use," he shrugged in complete return to his indifferent manner. "Stockade it is. Better make it of fourteen foot logs, slanted out. Dig a trench across, plant your logs three or four feet, bind them at the top. That's his specification for it. Go at it."
"But," I expostulated, "what's the use of it? Even if the men were dangerous, that would just make them think you did have something to guard."
"I know that. Orders," replied Percy Darrow.
We built the stockade in a day. When it was finished we marched to the beach, and never, save in the three instances of which I shall later tell you, did I see the valley again. The next day we washed our clothes, and moved ashore with all our belongings.
"I'm not going to have this crew aboard," stated Captain Selover positively, "I'm going to clean her." He himself stayed, however.
We rowed in, constructed a hasty fireplace of stones, spread our blankets, and built an unnecessary fire near the beach.
"Clean her!" grumbled Thrackles, "my eye!"
"I'd rather round the Cape," growled Pulz hopelessly.
"Come, now, it can't be as bad as all that," I tried to cheer them. "It can't be more than a week or ten days' job, even if we careen her."
"You don't know what you're talking about," said Thrackles. "It's worse than the yellow jack. It's six weeks at least. Mind when we last 'cleaned her'?" he inquired of Handy Solomon.
"You can kiss the Book on it," replied he. "Down by the line in that little swab of a sand island. My eye, but don't I remember! I sweated my liver white."
They smoked in silence.
"That's a main queer contrivance of the Perfessor's--that stockade-like," ventured Solomon, after a little.
"He doesn't want any intrusion," I said. "These scientific experiments are very delicate."
"Quite like," he commented non-committally.
We slept on the ground that night, and next morning, under Captain Selover's directions, we commenced the task of lightening the ship. He detailed the Nigger and Perdosa for special duty.
"I'll just see to your shore quarters," he squeaked. "You empty her."
All day long we rowed back and forth from the ship to the cove, landing the contents of the hold. These, by good fortune, we did not have to carry over the neck of land, for just above the gravel beach was a wide ledge on which we could pile the stores. We ate aboard, and so had no opportunity of seeing what Captain Selover and his men were about, until evening. Then we discovered that they had collected and lowered to the beach a quantity of stateroom doors from the wreck, and had trundled the galley stove to the edge where it awaited our assistance. We hitched a cable to it, and let it down gently. The Nigger was immensely pleased. After some experiment he got it to draw, and so cooked us our supper on it. After supper, Captain Selover rowed himself back to the ship.
"Eagen," he had said, drawing me aside, "I'm going to leave you with them. It's better that one of us--I think as owner I ought to be aboard----"
"Of course, sir," said I, "it's the only proper place for you."
"I'm glad you think so," he rejoined, apparently relieved. "And anyway," he cried, with a burst of feeling, "I hate the gritty feeling of it under my feet! Solid oak's the only walking for a man."
He left me hastily, as though a trifle ashamed. I thought he seemed depressed, even a little furtive, and yet on analysis I could discover nothing definite on which to base such a conclusion.
It was rather a feeling of difference from the man I had known. In my fatigue it seemed hardly worth thinking about.
The men had rolled themselves in their blankets, tired with the long day.
Next morning Captain Selover was ashore early. He had quite recovered his spirits, and offered me a dram of French brandy, which I refused. We worked hard again; again the master returned at night to his vessel, this time without a word to any of us; again the men, drugged by toil, turned in early and slept like the dead.
We became entangled in a mesh of days like these, during which things were accomplished, but in which was no space for anything but the tasks imposed upon us. The men for the most part had little to say.
"Por Dios, eet is too mooch work!" sighed Perdosa once.
"Why don't you kick to the Old Man, then?" sneered Thrackles.
The silence that followed, and the sullenness with which Perdosa readdressed himself to his work, was significant enough of Captain Selover's past relations with the men.
And how we did clean her! We stripped her of every stitch and sliver until she floated high, an empty hull, even her spars and running rigging ashore. I understood now the crew's grumbling. We literally went at her with a nail brush.
Captain Selover took charge of us when we had reached this period. He and the Nigger and Perdosa had long since finished the installation of the permanent camp. They had built us huts from the wreck, collecting stateroom doors for the sides, and hatches for the roofs, huge and solid, with iron rings in them. The bronze and iron ventilation gratings to the doors gave us glimpses of the coast through fretwork; the rich inlaying of woods surrounded us. We set up on a solid rock the galley stove--with its rails to hold the cooking pots from upsetting, in a sea way. In it we burned the débris of the wreck, all sorts of wood, some sweet and aromatic and spicy as an incensed cathedral. I have seen the Nigger boiling beans over a blaze of sandal wood fragrant as an Eastern shop.
First we scrubbed the Laughing Lass, then we painted her, and resized and tarred her standing rigging, resized and rove her running gear, slushed her masts, finally careened her and scraped and painted her below.
When we had quite finished, we had the anchor chain dealt out to us in fathoms, and scraped, pounded and polished that. These were indeed days full of labour.
Being busy from morning until night we knew but little of what was about us. We saw the open sea and the waves tumbling over the reef outside. We saw the headlands, and the bow of the bay and the surf with its watching seals and the curve of yellow sands. We saw the sweep of coast and the downs and the strange huts we had built out of departed magnificence. And that was all; that constituted our world.
In the evening sometimes we lit a big bonfire, sailor fashion, just at the edge of the beach. There we sat at ease and smoked our pipes in silence, too tired to talk. Even Handy Solomon's song was still. Outside the circle of light were mysterious things--strange wavings of white hands, bendings of figures, callings of voices, rustling of feet. We knew them for the surf and the wind in the grasses: but they were not the less mysterious for that.
Logically Captain Selover and I should have passed most of our evenings together. As a matter of fact we so spent very few. Early in the dusk the captain invariably rowed himself out to his beloved schooner. What he did there I do not know. We could see his light now in one part of her, now in the other. The men claimed he was scrubbing her teeth. "Old Scrubs" they called him to his back: never Captain Selover.
"He has to clean up after his own feet, he's so dirty," sagely proffered Handy Solomon. And this was true.
The seaman's prophecy held good. Seven weeks held us at that infernal job--seven weeks of solid, grinding work. The worst of it was, that we were kept at it so breathlessly, as though our very existence were to depend on the headlong rush of our labour. And then we had fully half the stores to put away again, and the other half to transport painfully over the neck of land from the cove to the beach.
So accustomed had I become to the routine in which we were involved, so habituated to anticipating the coming day as exactly like the day that had gone, that the completion of our job caught me quite by surprise. I had thrown myself down by the fire prepared for the some old half hour of drowsy nicotine, to be followed by the accustomed heavy sleep, and the usual early rising to toil. The evening was warm; I half closed my eyes.
Handy Solomon was coming in last. Instead of dropping to his place, he straddled the fire, stretching his arms over his head. He let them fall with a sharp exhalation.
"'Lay aloft, lay aloft,' the jolly bos'n cried. Blow high, blow low, what care we! 'Look ahead, look astern, look a-windward, look a-lee.' Down on the coast of the high Barbare-e-e."
The effect was electrical. We all sprang to our feet and fell to talking at once.
"By God, we're through!" cried Pulz. "I'd clean forgot it!"
The Nigger piled on more wood. We drew closer about the fire. All the interests in life, so long held in the background, leaped forward, eager for recognition. We spoke of trivialities almost for the first time since our landing, fused into a temporary but complete good fellowship by the relief.
"Wonder how the old doctor is getting on?" ventured Thrackles, after a while.
"The devil's a preacher! I wonder?" cried Handy Solomon.
"Let's make 'em a call," suggested Pulz.
"Don't believe they'd appreciate the compliment," I laughed. "Better let them make first call: they're the longer established." This was lost on them, of course. But we all felt kindly to one another that evening.
I carried the glow of it with me over until next morning, and was therefore somewhat dashed to meet Captain Selover, with clouded brows and an uncertain manner. He quite ignored my greeting.
"By God, Eagen," he squeaked, "can you think of anything more to be done?"
I straightened my back and laughed.
"Haven't you worked us hard enough?" I inquired. "Unless you gild the cabins, I don't see what else there can be to do."
Captain Selover stared me over.
"And you a naval man!" he marvelled. "Don't you see that the only thing that keeps this crew from gettin' restless is keeping them busy? I've sweat a damn sight more with my brain than you have with your back thinking up things to do. I can't see anything ahead, and then we'll have hell to pay. Oh, they're a sweet lot!"
I whistled and my crest fell. Here was a new point of view; and also a new Captain Ezra. Where was the confidence in the might of his two hands?
He seemed to read my thoughts, and went on.
"I don't feel sure here on this cussed land. It ain't like a deck where a man has some show. They can scatter. They can hide. It ain't right to put a man ashore alone with such a crew. I'm doing my best, but it ain't goin' to be good enough. I wisht we were safe in 'Frisco harbour----"
He would have maundered on, but I seized his arm and led him out of possible hearing of the men.
"Here, buck up!" I said to him sternly. "There's nothing to be scared of. If it comes to a row, there's three of us and we've got guns. We could even sail the schooner at a pinch, and leave them here. You've stood them off before."
"Not ashore," protested Captain Selover weakly.
"Well, they don't know that. For God's sake don't let them see you've lost your nerve this way." He did not even wince at the accusation. "Put up a front."
He shook his head. The sand had completely run out of him. Yet I am convinced that if he could have felt the heave and roll of the deck beneath him, he would have faced three times the difficulties he now feared. However, I could see readily enough the wisdom of keeping the men at work.
"You can wreck the Golden Horn," I suggested. "I don't know whether there's anything left worth salvage; but it'll be something to do."
He clapped me on the shoulder.
"Good!" he cried, "I never thought of it."
"Another thing," said I, "you better give them a day off a week. That can't hurt them and it'll waste just that much more time."
"All right," agreed Captain Selover.
"Another thing yet. You know I'm not lazy, so it ain't that I'm trying to dodge work. But you'd better lay me off. It'll be so much more for the others."
"That's true," said he.
I could not recognise the man for what I knew him to be. He groped, as one in the dark, or as a sea animal taken out of its element and placed on the sands. Courage had given place to fear; decision to wavering; and singleness of purpose to a divided counsel. He who had so thoroughly dominated the entire ship, eagerly accepted advice of me--a man without experience.
That evening I sat apart considerably disturbed. I felt that the ground had dropped away beneath my feet. To be sure, everything was tranquil at present; but now I understood the source of that tranquillity and how soon it must fail. With opportunity would come more scheming, more speculation, more cupidity. How was I to meet it, with none to back me but a scared man, an absorbed man, and an indifferent man?
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