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THE STEEL CLAW
During the next few days the crew discussed our destination. Discipline, while maintained strictly, was not conventional. During the dog watches, often, every man aboard would be below, for at that period Captain Selover loved to take the wheel in person, a thick cigar between his lips, the dingy checked shirt wide open to expose his hairy chest to the breeze. In the twilight of the forecastle we had some great sea-lawyer's talks--I say "We," though I took little part in them. Generally I lay across my bunk smoking my pipe while Handy Solomon held forth, his speech punctuated by surly speculations from the Nigger, with hesitating deep-sea wisdom from the hairy Thrackles, or with voluminous bursts of fractured English from Perdosa. Pulz had nothing to offer, but watched from his pale green eyes. The light shifted and wavered from one to the other as the ship swayed: garments swung; the empty berths yawned cavernous. I could imagine the forecastle filled with the desperate men who had beaten off the Oyama. The story is told that they had swept the gunboat's decks with her own rapid-fires, turned in.
No one knew where we were going, nor why. The doctor puzzled them, and the quantity of his belongings.
"It ain't pearls," said Handy Solomon. "You can kiss the Book on that, for we ain't a diver among us. It ain't Chinks, for we are cruising sou'-sou'-west. Likely it's trade,--trade down in the Islands."
We were all below. The captain himself had the wheel. Discipline, while strict, was not conventional.
"Contrabandista," muttered the Mexican, "for dat he geev us double pay."
"We don't get her for nothing," agreed Thrackles. "Double pay and duff on Wednesday generally means get your head broke."
"No trade," said the Nigger gloomily.
They turned to him with one accord.
"Why not?" demanded Pulz, breaking his silence.
"No trade," repeated the Nigger.
"Ain't you got a reason, Doctor?" asked Handy Solomon.
"No trade," insisted the Nigger.
An uneasy silence fell. I could not but observe that the others held the Nigger's statements in a respect not due them as mere opinions. Subsequently I understood a little more of the reputation he possessed. He was believed to see things hidden, as their phrase went.
Nobody said anything for some time; nobody stirred, except that Handy Solomon, his steel claw removed from its socket, whittled and tested, screwed and turned, trying to fix the hook so that, in accordance with the advice of Percy Darrow, it would turn either way.
"What is it, then, Doctor?" he asked softly at last.
"Gold," said the Nigger shortly. "Gold--treasure."
"That's what I said at first!" cried Handy Solomon triumphantly. It was extraordinary, the unquestioning and entire faith with which they accepted as gospel fact the negro's dictum.
There followed much talk of the nature of this treasure, whether it was to be sought or conveyed, bought, stolen, or ravished in fair fight. No further soothsaying could they elicit from the Nigger. They followed their own ideas, which led them nowhere. Someone lit the forecastle lamp. They settled themselves. Pulz read aloud.
This was the programme every day during the dog watch. Sometimes the watch on deck was absent, leaving only Handy Solomon, the Nigger and Pulz, but the order of the day was not on that account varied. They talked, they lit the lamp, they read. Always the talk was of the treasure.
As to the reading, it was of the sort usual to seamen, cowboys, lumbermen, and miners. Thrackles had a number of volumes of very cheap love stories. Pulz had brought some extraordinary garish detective stories. The others contributed sensational literature with paper covers adorned lithographically. By the usual incongruity a fragment of The Marble Faun was included in the collection. The Nigger has his copy of Duvall on Alchemy. I haven't the slightest idea where he could have got it.
While Pulz read, Handy Solomon worked on the alteration of his claw. He could never get it to hold, and I remember as an undertone to Pulz's reading, the rumble of strange, exasperated oaths. Whatever the evening's lecture, it always ended with the book on alchemy. These men had no perspective by which to judge such things. They accepted its speculations and theories at their face value. Extremely laughable were the discussions that followed. I often wished the shade of old Duvall could be permitted to see these, his last disciples, spelling out dimly his teachings, mispronouncing his grave utterances, but believing utterly.
Dr. Schermerhorn appeared on deck seldom. When he did, often his fingers held a pen which he had forgotten to lay aside. I imagined him preoccupied by some calculation of his own, but the forecastle, more picturesquely, saw him as guarding constantly the heavy casket he had himself carried aboard. He breathed the air, walked briskly, turned with the German military precision at the end of his score of strides, and re-entered his cabin at the lapse of the half hour. After he had gone, remained Percy Darrow leaning indolently against the taffrail, his graceful figure swaying with the ship's motion, smoking always the corn-husk Mexican cigarettes which he rolled with one hand. He seemed from that farthest point aft to hold in review the appliances, the fabric, the actions, yes, even the very thoughts, of the entire ship. From them he selected that on which he should comment or with which he should play, always with a sardonic, half-serious, quite wearied and indifferent manner. His inner knowledge, viewed by the light of this manner or mannerism, was sometimes uncanny, though perhaps the sources of his information were commonplace enough, after all. Certainly he always viewed with amusement his victim's wonder.
Thus one evening at the close of our day-watch on deck, he approached Handy Solomon. It was at the end of ten days, on no one of which had the seaman failed to tinker away at his steel claw. Darrow balanced in front of him with a thin smile.
"Too bad it doesn't work, my amiable pirate," said he. "It would be so handy for fighting--See here," he suddenly continued, pulling some object from his pocket, "here's a pipe; present to me; I don't smoke 'em. Twist her halfway, like that, she comes out. Twist her halfway, like this, she goes in. That's your principle. Give her back to me when you get through."
He thrust the briar pipe into the man's hand, and turned away without waiting for a reply. The seaman looked after him in open amazement. That evening he worked on the socket of the steel hook, and in two days he had the job finished. Then he returned the pipe to Darrow with some growling of thanks.
"That's all right," said the young man, smiling full at him. "Now what are you going to fight?"
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