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WRECKING OF THE GOLDEN HORN
Percy Darrow, unexpected, made his first visit to us the very next evening. He sauntered in with a Mexican corn-husk cigarette between his lips, carrying a lantern; blew the light out, and sat down with a careless greeting, as though he had seen us only the day before.
"Hullo, boys," said he, "been busy?"
"How are ye, sir?" replied Handy Solomon. "Good Lord, mates, look at that!"
Our eyes followed the direction of his forefinger. Against the dark blue of the evening sky to northward glowed a faint phosphorescence, arch-shaped, from which shot, with pulsating regularity, long shafts of light. They beat almost to the zenith, and back again, a half dozen times, then the whole illumination disappeared with the suddenness of gas turned out.
"Now I wonder what that might be!" marvelled Thrackles.
"Northern lights," hazarded Pulz. "I've seen them almost like that in the Behring Seas."
"Northern lights your eye!" sneered Handy Solomon. "You may have seen them in the Behring Seas, but never this far south, and in August, and you can, kiss the Book on that."
"What do you think, sir?" Thrackles inquired of the assistant.
"Devil's fire," replied Percy Darrow briefly. "The island's a little queer. I've noticed it before."
"Debbil fire," repeated the Nigger.
Darrow turned directly to him.
"Yes, devil's fire; and devils, too, for all I know; and certainly vampires. Did you ever hear of vampires, Doctor?"
"No," growled the Nigger.
"Well, they are women, wonderful, beautiful women. A man on a long voyage would just smack his lips to see them. They have shiny grey eyes, and lips red as raspberries. When you meet them they will talk with you and go home with you. And then when you're asleep they tear a little hole in your neck with their sharp claws, and they suck the blood with their red lips. When they aren't women, they take the shape of big bats like birds." He turned to me with so beautifully casual an air that I wanted to clap him on the back with the joy of it.
"By the way, Eagen, have you noticed those big bats the last few evenings, over by the cliff? I can't make out in the dusk whether they are vampires or just plain bats." He directed his remarks again to the Nigger. "Next time you see any of those big bats, Doctor, just you notice close. If they have just plain, black eyes, they're all right; but if they have grey eyes, with red rims around 'em, they're vampires. I wish you'd let me know, if you do find out. It's interesting."
"Don' get me near no bats," growled the Nigger.
"Where's Selover?" inquired Darrow.
"He stays aboard," I hastened to say. "Wants to keep an eye on the ship."
"That's laudable. What have you been doing?"
"We've been cleaning ship. Just finished yesterday evening."
"We were thinking of wrecking the Golden Horn."
"Quite right. Well, if you want any help with your engines or anything of the sort, call on me."
He arose and began to light his lantern. "I hope as how you're getting on well there above, sir?" ventured Handy Solomon insinuatingly.
"Very well, I thank you, my man," replied Percy Darrow drily. "Remember those vampires, Doctor."
He swung the lantern and departed without further speech. We followed the spark of it until it disappeared in the arroyo.
Behind us bellowed the sea; over against us in the sky was the dull threatening glow of the volcano; about us were mysterious noises of crying birds, barking seals, rustling or rushing winds. I felt the thronging ghosts of all the old world's superstition swirling madly behind us in the eddies that twisted the smoke of our fire.
We wrecked the Golden Horn. Forward was a rusted-out donkey engine, which we took to pieces and put together again. It was no mean job, for all the running parts had to be cleaned smooth, and with the exception of a rudimentary knowledge on the part of Pulz and Perdosa, we were ignorant. In fact we should not have succeeded at all had it not been for Percy Darrow and his lantern. The first evening we took him over to the cliff's edge he laughed aloud.
"Jove, boys, how could you guess it all wrong," he wondered.
With a few brief words he set us right, Pulz, Perdosa, and I listening intently; the others indifferent in the hopelessness of being able to comprehend. Of course, we went wrong again in our next day's experiments; but Darrow was down two or three times a week, and gradually we edged toward a practical result.
His explanations consumed but a few moments. After they were finished, we adjourned to the fire.
Thus we came gradually to a better acquaintance with the doctor's assistant. In many respects he remained always a puzzle, to me. Certainly the men never knew how to take him. He was evidently not only unafraid of them, but genuinely indifferent to them.
Yet he displayed a certain interest in their needs and affairs. His practical knowledge was enormous. I think I have told you of the completeness of his arrangements--everything had been foreseen from grindstones to gas nippers. The same quality of concrete speculation showed him what we lacked in our own lives.
There was, as you remember, the matter of Handy Solomon's steel claw. He showed Thrackles a kind of lanyard knot that deep-sea person had never used. He taught Captain Selover how to make soft soap out of one species of seaweed. Me, he initiated in the art of fishing with a white bone lure. Our camp itself he reconstructed on scientific lines so that we enjoyed less aromatic smoke and more palatable dinner. And all of it he did amusedly, as though his ideas were almost too obvious to need communication.
We became in a manner intimate with him. He guyed the men in his indolent fashion, playing on their credulity, their good nature, even their forbearance. They alternately grinned and scowled. He left always a confused impression, so that no one really knew whether he cherished rancour against Percy Darrow or kindly feeling.
The Nigger was Darrow's especial prey. The assistant had early discovered that the cook was given to signs, omens, and superstitions.
From a curious scholar's lore he drew fantastics with which to torment his victim. We heard of all the witches, warlocks, incubi, succibi, harpies, devils, imps, and haunters of Avitchi, from all the teachings of history, sacred and profane, Hindu, Egyptian, Greek, mediaeval, Swedenborg, Rosicrucian, theosophy, theology, with every last ounce of horror, mystery, shivers, and creeps squeezed out of them. They were gorgeous ghost stories, for they were told by a man fully informed as to all the legendary and gruesome details. At first I used to think he might have communicated it more effectively. Then I saw that the cool, drawling manner, the level voice, were in reality the highest art. He told his stories in a half-amused, detached manner which imposed confidence more readily than any amount of earnest asseveration. The mere fact of his own belief in what he said came to matter little. He was the vehicle by which was brought accurate knowledge. He had read all these things, and now reported them as he had read: each man could decide for himself as to their credibility.
At last the donkey engine was cleared and reinstalled, atop the cliff. The Nigger built under her a fire of black walnut; Captain Selover handed out grog all around; and we started her up with a cheer, just to see the wheels revolve.
Next we half buried some long hatches, end up, to serve as bitts for the lines, hitched our cables to them, and joyfully commenced the task of pulling the Golden Horn piece by piece up the side of the cliff.
The stores were badly damaged by the wet, and there was no liquor, for which I was sincerely grateful. We broke into the boxes, and arrayed ourselves in various garments--which speedily fell to pieces--and appropriated gim-cracks of all sorts. There were some arms, but the ammunition had gone bad. Perdosa, out of forty or fifty mis-fires, got one feeble sputter, and a tremendous bang which blew up his piece, leaving only the stock in his hand. A few tinned goods were edible; but all the rest was destroyed. A lot of hard woods, a thousand feet of chain cable, and a fairly good anchor might be considered as prizes. As for the rest, it was foolishness, but we hauled it up just the same until nothing at all remained. Then we shut off the donkey engine, and put on dry clothes. We had been quite happy for the eight months.
It was now well along toward spring. The winter had been like summer, and with the exception of a few rains of a week or so, we had enjoyed beautiful skies. The seals had thinned out considerably, but were now returning in vast numbers ready for their annual domestic arrangements.
Our Sundays we had mostly spent in resting, or in fishing. There were many deep sea fish to be had, of great palatability, but small gameness; they came like so many leaden weights. A few of us had climbed some of the hills in a half-hearted curiosity, but from their summits saw nothing to tempt weariness. Practically we knew nothing beyond the mile or so of beach on which we lived.
Captain Selover had made a habit of coming ashore at least once during the day. He had contented himself with standing aloof, but I took pains to seem to confer with him, so that the men might suppose that I, as mate, was engaged in carrying out his directions. The dread of him was my most potent influence over them.
During the last few days of our wrecking, Captain Selover had omitted his daily visit. The fact made me uneasy, so that at my first opportunity I sculled myself out to the schooner. I found him, moist-eyed as usual, leaning against the mainmast doing nothing.
"We've finished, sir," said I.
He looked at me.
"Will you come ashore and have a look, sir?" I inquired.
"I ain't going ashore again," he muttered thickly.
"What!" I cried.
"I ain't going ashore again," he repeated obstinately, "and that's all there is to it. It's too much of a strain on any man. Suit yourself. You run them. I shipped as captain of a vessel. I'm no dock walloper. I won't do it--for no man!"
I gasped with dismay at the man's complete moral collapse. It seemed incredible. I caught myself wondering whether he would recover tone were he again to put to sea.
"My God, man, but you must!" I cried at last.
"I won't, and that's flat," said he, and turned deliberately on his heel and disappeared in the cabin.
I went ashore thoughtful and a little scared. But on reflection I regained a great part of my ease of mind. You see, I had been with these men now eight months, during which they had been as orderly as so many primary schoolboys. They had worked hard, without grumbling, and had even approached a sort of friendliness about the camp fire. My first impression was overlaid. As I looked back on the voyage, with what I took to be a clearer vision, I could not but admit that the incidents were in themselves trivial enough--a natural excitement by a superstitious negro, a little tall talk that meant nothing. It must have been the glamour of the adventure that had deceived me; that, and the unusual stage setting and costuming. Certainly few men would work hard for eight months without a murmur, without a chance to look about them.
In that, of course, I was deceived by my inexperience. I realised later the wonderful effect Captain Selover threw away with his empty brandy bottles. The crew might grumble and plot during the watch below; but when Captain Ezra Selover said work, they worked. He had been saying work, for eight months. They had, from force of experience, obeyed him. It was all very simple.
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