Chapter 12




THE PHILOSOPHER'S STONE


Captain Selover received as his due the most absolute and implicit obedience imaginable. When he condescended to give an order in his own person, the men fairly jumped to execute it. The matter had evidently been threshed out long ago. They did not love him, not they; but they feared him with a mighty fear, and did not hesitate to say so, vividly, and often, when in the privacy of the forecastle. The prevailing spirit was that of the wild beast, cowed but snarling still. Pulz and Thrackles in especial had a great deal to say of what they were or were not going to do, but I noticed that their resolution always began to run out of them when first foot was set to the companion ladder.

One day we were loafing along, everything drawing well, and everybody but the doctor on deck to enjoy the sun. I was in the crow's-nest for my pleasure. Below me on the deck Captain Selover roamed here and there, as was his custom, his eye cocked out like a housewife's for disorder. He found it, again in the evidence of expectoration, and as Perdosa happened to be handiest, fell on the unfortunate Mexican.

Perdosa protested that he had had nothing to do with it, but Captain Selover, enraged as always when his precious deck was soiled, would not listen. Finally the Mexican grew sulky and turned away as though refusing to hear more. The captain thereupon felled him to the deck, and began brutally to kick him in the face and head.

Perdosa writhed and begged, but without avail. The other members of the crew gathered near. After a moment, they began to murmur. Finally Thrackles ventured, most respectfully, to intervene.

"You'll kill him, sir," he interposed. "He's had enough."

"Had enough, has he?" screeched the captain. "Well, you take what's left."

He marked Thrackles heavily over the eye. There was a breathless pause; and then Thrackles, Pulz, the Nigger, and Perdosa attacked at once.

They caught the master unawares, and bore him to the deck. I dropped at once to the ratlines, and commenced my descent. Before I had reached the deck, however, Selover was afoot again, the four hanging to him like dogs. In a moment more he had shaken them off; and before I could intervene, he had seized a belaying pin in either hand, and was hazing them up and down the deck.

"Mutiny, would you?" he shrilled. "You poor swabs! Forgot who was your captain, did ye? Well, it's Captain Ezra Selover, and you can lay to that! It would need about eight fathom of stuff like you to tie me down."

He chased them forward, and he chased them aft, and every time the pins fell, blood followed. Finally they dived like rabbits into the forecastle hatch. Captain Selover leaned down after them.

"Now tie yourselves up," he advised, "and then come on deck and clean up after yourselves!" He turned to me. "Mr. Eagen, turn out the crew to clean decks."

I descended to the forecastle, followed immediately by Handy Solomon. The latter had taken no part in the affair. We found the men in horrible shape, what with the bruises and cuts, and bleeding freely.

"Now you're a nice-looking Sunday school!" observed Handy Soloman, eyeing them sardonically. "Tackel Old Scrubs, will ye? Well, some needs a bale of cotton to fall on 'em afore they learns anything. Enjoyed your little diversions, mates? And w'at do you expect to gain? I asks you that, now. You poor little infants! Ain't you never tackled him afore? Don't remember a little brigatine, name of the Petrel! My eye, but you are a pack of damn fools!"

To this he received no reply. The men sullenly assisted each other. Then they went immediately on deck and to work.

After this taste of his quality, Captain Selover enjoyed a quiet ship. We made good time, but for a long while nothing happened. Finally the monotony was broken by an incident.

One evening before the night winds I sat in the shadow of the extra dory on top of the deck house. The moon was but just beyond the full, so I suppose I must have been practically invisible. Certainly the Nigger did not know of my presence, for he came and stood within three feet of me without giving any sign. The companion was open. In a moment some door below was opened also, and a scrap of conversation came up to us very clearly.

"You haf dem finished?" the doctor's voice inquired. "So, that iss well,"--papers rustled for a few moments. "And the r-result-- ah--exactly--it iss that exactly. Percy, mein son, that maigs the experiment exact. We haf the process----"

"I don't see, sir, quite," replied the voice of Percy Darrow, with a tinge of excitement. "I can follow the logic of the experiment, of course--so can I follow the logic of a trip to the moon. But when you come to apply it--how do you get your re-agent? There's no known method----"

Dr. Schermerhorn broke in: "Ach, it iss that I haf perfected. Pardon me, my boy, it iss the first I haf worked from you apart. It iss for a surprise. I haf made in small quantities the missing ingredient. It will form a perfect interruption to the current. Now we go----"

"Do you mean to say," almost shouted Darrow, "that you have succeeded in freeing it in the metal?"

"Yes," replied the doctor simply.

I could hear a chair overturned.

"Why, with that you can----"

"I can do everything," broke in the doctor. "The possibilities are enormous."

"And you can really produce it in quantity?"

"I think so; it iss for us to discover."

A pause ensued.

"Why!" came the voice of Percy Darrow, awestricken. "With fifty centigrammes only you could--you could transmute any substance--why, you could make anything you pleased almost! You could make enough diamonds to fill that chest! It is the philosopher's stone!"

"Diamonds--yes--it is possible," interrupted the doctor impatiently, "if it was worth while. But you should see the real importance----"

The ship careened to a chance swell; a door slammed; the voices were cut off. I looked up. The Nigger's head was thrust forward fairly into the glow from the companionway. The mask of his sullenness had fallen. His eyes fairly rolled in excitement, his thick lips were drawn back to expose his teeth, his powerful figure was gathered with the tensity of a bow. When the door slammed, he turned silently to glide away. At that instant the watch was changed, and in a moment I found myself in my bunk.

Ten seconds later the Nigger, detained by Captain Selover for some trifling duty, burst into the forecastle. He was possessed by the wildest excitement. This in itself was enough to gain the attention of the men, but his first words were startling.

"I found de treasure!" he almost shouted. "I know where he kept!"

They leaped at him--Handy Solomon and Pulz--and fairly shook out of him what he thought he knew. He babbled in the forgotten terms of alchemy, dressing modern facts in the garments of mediaeval thought until they were scarcely to be recognised.

"And so he say dat he fine him, de Philosopher Stone, and he keep him in dat heavy box we see him carry aboard, and he don' have to make gol' with it--he can make diamon's--diamon's--he say it too easy to fill dat box plum full of diamon's."

They gesticulated and exclaimed and breathed hard, full of the marvel of such a thought. Then abruptly the clamour died to nothing. I felt six eyes bent on me, six unwinking eyes moving restless in motionless figures, suspicious, deadly as cobras----

Up to now my standing with the men had been well enough. Now they drew frankly apart. One of the most significant indications of this was the increased respect they paid my office. It was as though by prompt obedience, instant deference, and the emphasising of ship's etiquette they intended to draw sharply the line between themselves and me. There was much whispering apart, many private talks and consultations in which I had no part. Ordinarily they talked freely enough before me. Even the reading during the dog watch was intermitted--at least it was on such days as I happened to be in the watch below. But twice I caught the Nigger and Handy Solomon consulting together over the volume on alchemy.

I was in two minds whether to report the whole matter to Captain Selover. The only thing that restrained me was the vagueness of the intention, and the fact that the afterguard was armed, and was four to the crew's five. An incident, however, decided me. One evening I was awakened by a sound of violent voices. Captain Selover occasionally juggled the watches for variety's sake, and I now had Handy Solomon and Perdosa. The Nigger, being cook, stood no watch.

"You drunken Greaser swab!" snarled Handy Solomon. "You misbegotten son of a Yaqui! I'll learn you to step on a seaman's foot, and you can kiss the book on that! I'll cut your heart out and feed it to the sharks!"

"Potha!" sneered Perdosa. "You cut heem you finger wid your knife."

They wrangled. At first I thought the quarrel genuine, but after a moment or so I could not avoid a sort of reminiscent impression of the cheap melodrama. It seemed incredible, but soon I could not dodge the conclusion that it was a made-up quarrel designed to impress me.

Why should they desire to do so? I had to give it up, but the fact itself was obvious enough. I laughed to see them. The affair did not come to blows, but it did come to black looks on meeting, muttered oaths, growls of enmity every time they happened to pass each other on the deck. Perdosa was not so bad; his Mexican blood inclined him to the histrionic, and his Mexican cast lent itself well to evil looks. But Handy Solomon, for the first time in my acquaintance with him, was ridiculous.

About this time we crossed into frequent thunders. One evening just at dark we made out a heavy black squall. Not knowing exactly what weight lay behind it, I called up all hands. We ducked the staysail and foresail, lowered the peak of the mainsail, and waited to feel of it--a rough and ready seamanship often used in these little California windjammers. I was pretty busy, but I heard distinctly Handy Solomon's voice behind me.

"I'll kill you sure, you Greaser, as soon as my hands are free!"

And some muttered reply from the Mexican.

The wind hit us hard, held on a few moments, and moderated to a stiff puff. There followed the rain, so of course I knew it would amount to nothing. I was just stooping to throw the stops off the staysail when I felt myself seized from behind, and forced rapidly toward the side of the ship.

Of course I struggled. The Japanese have a little trick to fool a man who catches you around the waist from behind. It is part of the jiu-jitsu taught the Samurai--quite a different proposition from the ordinary "policeman jiu-jitsu." I picked it up from a friend in the nobility. It came in very handy now, and by good luck a roll of the ship helped me. In a moment I stood free, and Perdosa was picking himself out of the scuppers.

The expression of astonishment was fairly well done--I will say that for him--but I was prepared for histrionics.

"Seņor!" he gasped. "Eet is you! Sacrosanta Maria! I thought you was dat Solomon! Pardon me, seņor! Pardon! Have I hurt you?"

He approached me almost wheedling. I could have laughed at the villain. It was all so transparent. He no more mistook me for Handy Solomon than he felt any real enmity for that person. But being angry, and perhaps a little scared, I beat him to his quarters with a belaying pin.

On thinking the matter over, however, I failed to see all the ins and outs of it. I could understand a desire to get rid of me; there would be one less of the afterguard, and then, too, I knew too much of the men's sentiments, if not of their plans. But why all this elaborate farce of the mock quarrel and the alleged mistake? Could it be to guard against possible failure? I could hardly think it worth while. My only theory was that they had wished to test my strength and determination. The whole affair, even on that supposition, was childish enough, but I referred the exaggerated cunning to Handy Solomon, and considered it quite adequately explained. It is a minor point, but subsequently I learned that this surmise was correct. I was to be saved because none of the conspirators understood navigation.

The next morning I approached Captain Selover.

"Captain," said I, "I think it my duty to report that there is trouble brewing among the crew."

"There always is," he replied, unmoved.

"But this is serious. Dr. Schermerhorn came aboard with a chest which the men think holds treasure. The other evening Robinson overheard him tell his assistant that he could easily fill the box with diamonds. Of course, he was merely illustrating the value of some scientific experiment, but Robinson thinks, and has made the others think, that the chest contains something to make diamonds with. I am sure they intend to get hold of it. The affair is coming to a head."

Captain Selover listened almost indifferently.

"I came back from the islands last year," he piped, "with three hundred thousand dollars' worth of pearls. There was sixteen in the crew, and every man of them was blood hungry for them pearls. They had three or four shindies and killed one man over the proper way to divide the loot after they had got it. They didn't get it. Why?" He drew his powerful figure to its height and spread his thick arms out in the luxury of stretching. "Why?" he repeated, exhaling abruptly. "Because their captain was Ezra Selover! Well, Mr. Eagen," he went on crisply, "Captain Ezra Selover is their captain, and they know it! They'll talk and palaver and git into dark corners, and sharpen their knives, and perhaps fight it out as to which one's going to work the monkey-doodle business in the doctor's chest, and which one's going to tie up the sacks of them diamonds, but they won't git any farther as long as Captain Ezra is on deck." "Yes," I objected, "but they mean business. Last night in the squall one of them tried to throw me overboard."

Captain Selover grinned.

"What did you do?" he asked.

"Hazed him to his quarters with a belaying pin."

"Well, that's all settled then, isn't it? What more do you want?"

I stood undecided.

"I can take care of myself," he went on. "You ought to take care of yourself. Then there's nothing more to do."

He mused a moment.

"You have a gun, of course?" he inquired. "I forgot to ask."

"No," said I.

He whistled.

"Well, no wonder you feel sort of lost and hopeless! Here, take this, it'll make a man of you."

He gave me a Colt's 45, the barrel of which had been filed down to about two inches of length. It was a most extraordinary weapon, but effective at short range.

"Here's a few loose cartridges," said he. "Now go easy. This is no warship, and we ain't got men to experiment on. Lick 'em with your fists or a pin, if you can; and if you do shoot, for God's sake just wing 'em a little. They're awful good lads, but a little restless."

I took the gun and felt better. With it I could easily handle the members of my own watch, and I did not doubt that with the assistance of Percy Darrow even a surprise would hardly overwhelm us. I did not count on Dr. Schermerhorn. He was quite capable of losing himself in a problem of trajectory after the first shot.




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