The Mystery (Adams and White)/Part 2/Chapter 1

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PART TWO

THE BRASS BOUND CHEST

Being the story told by Ralph Slade, Free Lance, to the officers of the United States cruiser Wolverine.
 

 

I

THE BARBARY COAST

A coincidence got me aboard her. I'll tell you how it was. One evening late I was just coming out of a dark alley on the Barbary Coast, San Francisco. You know—the water front, where you can hear more tongues than at Port Said, see stranger sights, and meet adventure with the joyous certainty of mediæval times. I'd been down there hunting up a man reported, by a wharf-rat of my acquaintance, to have just returned from a two years' whaling voyage. He'd been "shanghaied" aboard, and as a matter of fact, was worth nearly a million dollars. Landed in the city without a cent, could get nobody to believe him, nor trust him to the extent of a telegram East. Wharf-rat laughed at his yarn; but I believe it was true. Good copy anyway——

Just at the turn of the alley I nearly bumped into two men. On the Barbary Coast you don't pass men in narrow places until you have reconnoitered a little. I pulled up, thanking fortune that they had not seen me. The first words were uttered in a voice I knew well.

You've all heard of Dr. Karl Augustus Schermerhorn. He did some big things, and had in mind still bigger. I'd met him some time before in connection with his telepathy and wireless waves theory. It was picturesque stuff for my purpose, but wasn't in it with what the old fellow had really done. He showed me—well, that doesn't matter. The point is, that good, staid, self-centred, or rather science-centred, Dr. Schermerhorn was standing at midnight in a dark alley on the Barbary Coast in San Francisco talking to an individual whose facial outline at least was not ornamental.

My curiosity, or professional instinct, whichever you please, was all aroused. I flattened myself against the wall.

The first remark I lost. The reply came to me in a shrill falsetto. So grotesque was the effect of this treble from a bulk so squat and broad and hairy as the silhouette before me that I almost laughed aloud.

"I guess you've made no mistake on that. I'm her master, and her owner too."

"Well, I haf been told you might rent her," said the Doctor.

"Rent her!" mimicked the falsetto. "Well, that—hell, yes, I'll rent her!" he laughed again.

"Doch recht." The Doctor was plainly at the end of his practical resources.

After waiting a moment for something more definite, the falsetto inquired rather drily:

"How long? What to? What for? Who are you, anyway?"

"I am Dr. Schermerhorn," the latter answered.

"Seen pieces about you in the papers."

"How many men haf you in the crew?"

"Me and the mate and the cook and four hands."

"And you could go—soon?"

"Soon as you want—if I go."

"I wish to leaf to-morrow."

"If I can get the crew together, I might make it. But say, let's not hang out here in this run of darkness. Come over to the grog shop yonder where we can sit down."

To my relief, for my curiosity was fully aroused—Dr. Schermerhorn's movements are usually productive—this proposal was vetoed.

"No, no!" cried the Doctor, with some haste, "this iss well! Somebody might oferhear."

The huge figure stirred into an attitude of close attention. After a pause the falsetto asked deliberately:

"Where we goin'?"

"I brefer not to say."

"H'm! How long a cruise?"

"I want to rent your schooner and your crew as-long-as I-please-to remain."

"H'm! How long's that likely to be?"

"Maybe a few months; maybe seferal years."

"H'm! Unknown port; unknown cruise. See here, anything crooked in this?"

"No, no! Not at all! It iss simply business of my own."

"Not that I care," commented the other easily, "only risks is worth paying for."

"There shall not be risk."

"Pearls likely?" hazarded the other, without much heed to the assurance. "Them Jap gunboats is getting pretty hard to dodge of late years. However, I've dodged 'em before."

"Now as to pay—how mooch iss your boat worth?"

I could almost follow the man's thoughts as he pondered how much he dared ask.

"Well, you see, for a proposition like that—don't know where we're going, when we're going to get back,—and them gunboats—how would a hundred and twenty-five a month strike you?"

"Double it up. I want you to do ass I say, and I will also give your crew double wages. Bud I want goot men, who will stay, and who will keep the mouth shut."

"Gosh all fish-hooks! They'd go to hell with you for that!"

"Now you can get all you want of Adams & Marsh. Tell them it iss for me, Brovisions for three years, anyhow. Be ready to sail to-morrow."

"Tide turns at eight in the evening."

"I will send some effects in the morning."

The master hesitated.

"That's all right, Doctor, but how do I know it's all right? Maybe by morning you'll change your mind."

"That cannot be. My plans are all——"

"It's the usual thing to pay something——"

"Ach, but yes. I haf forgot. Darrow told me. I will make you a check. Let us go to the table of which you spoke."

They moved away, still talking. I did not dare follow them into the light, for I feared that the Doctor would recognise me. I'd have given my eye teeth, though, to have gathered the name of the
 
P 060--The mystery--i brefer not to say.jpg

"Where we goin?" "I brefer not to say"

 
schooner, or that of her master. As it was, I hung around until the two had emerged from the corner saloon. They paused outside, still talking earnestly. I ventured a hasty interview with the bar-keeper.

"Did you notice the two men who were sitting at the middle table?" I asked him.

"Sure!" said he, shoving me my glass of beer.

"Know them?" I inquired.

"Never laid eyes on 'em before. Old chap looked like a sort of corn doctor or corner spell-binder. Other was probably one of these longshore abalone men."

"Thanks," I muttered, and dodged out again, leaving the beer untouched.

I cursed myself for a blunderer. When I got to the street the two men had disappeared. I should have shadowed the captain to his vessel.

The affair interested me greatly. Apparently Dr. Schermerhorn was about to go on a long voyage. I prided myself on being fairly up to date in regard to the plans of those who interested the public; and the public at that time was vastly interested in Dr. Schermerhorn. I, in common with the rest of the world, had imagined him anchored safely in Philadelphia, immersed in chemical research. Here he bobbed up at the other end of the continent, making shady bargains with obscure shipping captains, and paying a big premium for absolute secrecy. It looked good.

Accordingly I was out early the next morning. I had not much to go by; schooners are as plenty as tadpoles in San Francisco harbour. However, I was sure I could easily recognise that falsetto voice; and I knew where the supplies were to be purchased. Adams & Marsh are a large firm, and cautious. I knew better than to make direct inquiries, or to appear in the salesroom. But by hanging around the door of the shipping room I soon had track of the large orders to be sent that day. In this manner I had no great difficulty in following a truck to Pier 10, nor to identify a consignment to Captain Ezra Selover as probably that of which I was in search.

The mate was in charge of the stowage, so I could not be quite sure. Here, however, was a schooner—of about a hundred and fifty tons burden. I looked her over.

You're all acquainted with the Laughing Lass and the perfection of her lines. You have not known her under Captain Ezra Selover. She was the cleanest ship I ever saw. Don't know how he accomplished it, with a crew of four and the cook; but he did. The deck looked as though it had been holystoned every morning by a crew of jackies; the stays were whipped and tarred, the mast new-slushed, and every foot of running gear coiled down shipshape and Bristol fashion. There was a good deal of brass about her; it shone like gold, and I don't believe she owned an inch of paint that wasn't either fresh or new-scrubbed.

I gazed for some time at this marvel. It's unusual enough anywhere, but aboard a California hooker it is little short of miraculous. The crew had all turned up, apparently, and a swarm of stevedores were hustling every sort of provisions, supplies, stock, spars, lines and canvas down into the hold. It was a rush job, and that mate was having his hands full. I didn't wonder at his language nor at his looks, both of which were somewhat mussed up. Then almost at my elbow I heard that shrill falsetto squeal, and turned just in time to see the captain ascend the after gangplank.

He was probably the most dishevelled and untidy man I ever laid my eyes on. His hair and beard were not only long, but tangled and unkempt, and grew so far toward each other as barely to expose a strip of dirty brown skin. His shoulders were bowed and enormous. His arms hung like a gorilla's, palms turned slightly outwards. On his head was jammed a linen boating hat that had once been white; gaping away from his hairy chest was a faded dingy checked cotton shirt that had once been brown and white; his blue trousers were spotted and splashed with dusty stains; he was chewing tobacco. A figure more in contrast to the exquisitely neat vessel it would be hard to imagine.

The captain mounted the gangplank with a steadiness that disproved my first suspicion of his having been on a drunk. He glanced aloft, cast a speculative eye on the stevedores trooping across the waist of the ship, and ascended to the quarter-deck where the mate stood leaning over the rail and uttering directed curses from between sweat-beaded lips. There the big man roamed aimlessly on what seemed to be a tour of casual inspection. Once he stopped to breathe on the brass binnacle and to rub it bright with the dirtiest red bandana handkerchief I ever want to see.

His actions amused me. The discrepancy between his personal habits and his particularity in the matter of his surroundings was exceedingly interesting. I have often noticed that such discrepancies seem to indicate exceptional characters. As I watched him, his whole frame stiffened. The long gorilla arms contracted, the hairy head sunk forward in the tenseness of a serpent ready to strike. He uttered a shrill falsetto shriek that brought to a standstill every stevedore on the job; and sprang forward to seize his mate by, the shoulder.

Evidently the grasp hurt. I can believe it might, from those huge hands. The man wrenched himself about with an oath of inquiry and pain. I could hear one side of what followed. The captain's high-pitched tones carried clearly; but the grumble and growl of the mate were indistinguishable at that distance.

"How far is it to the side of the ship, you hound of hell?" shrieked the captain.

Mumble—surprised—for an answer.

"Well, I'll tell you, you swab! It's just two fathom from where you stand. Just two fathom! How long would it take you to walk there? How long? Just about six seconds! There and back! You——" I won't bother with all the epithets, although by now I know Captain Selover's vocabulary fairly well. "And you couldn't take six seconds off to spit over the side! Couldn't walk two fathom! Had to spit on my quarter-deck, did you!"

Rumble from the mate.

"No, by God, you won't call up any of the crew. You'll get a swab and do it yourself. You'll get a hand swab and get down on your knees, damn you! I'll teach you to be lazy!"

The mate said something again.

"It don't matter if we ain't under way. That has nothing to do with it. The quarter-deck is clean, if the waist ain't, and nobody but a damn misbegotten son-of-a-sea-lawyer would spit on deck anyhow!" From this Captain Selover went on into a good old-fashioned deep-sea "cussing out," to the great joy of the stevedores.

The mate stood it pretty well, but there comes a time when further talk is useless even in regard to a most heinous offense. And, of course, as you know, the mate could hardly consider himself very seriously at fault. Why, the ship was not yet at sea, and in all the clutter of charging. He began to answer back. In a moment it was a quarrel. Abruptly it was a fight. The mate marked Selover beneath the left eye. The captain with beautiful simplicity crushed his antagonist in his gorilla-like squeeze, carried him to the side of the vessel, and dropped him limp and beaten to the pier. And the mate was a good stout specimen of a sea-farer, too.

Then the captain rushed below, emerging after an instant with a chest which he flung after his subordinate. It was followed a moment later by a stream of small stuff,—mingled with language—projected through an open port-hole. This in turn ceased. The captain reappeared with a pail and brush, scrubbed feverishly at the offending spot, mopped it dry with that same old red bandana handkerchief, glared about him,—and abruptly became as serene and placid as a noon calm. He took up the direction of the stevedores. It was all most astounding.

Nobody paid any attention to the mate. He looked toward the ship once or twice, thought better of it, and began to pick up his effects, muttering savagely. In a moment or so he threw his chest aboard an outgoing truck and departed.

It was now nearly noon and I was just in the way of going for something to eat, when I caught sight of another dray laden with boxes and crated affairs which I recognised as scientific apparatus. It was followed in quick succession by three others. Ignorant as I was of the requirements of a scientist, my common sense told me this could be no exploring outfit. I revised my first intention of going to the club, and bought a sandwich or two at the corner coffee house. I don't know why, but even then the affair seemed big with mystery, with the portent of tragedy. Perhaps the smell of tar was in my nostrils and the sea called. It has always possessed for me an extraordinary allurement——

A little after two o'clock a cab drove to the after gangplank and stopped. From it alighted a young man of whom I shall later have occasion to tell you more, followed by Dr. Schermerhorn. The young man carried only a light leather "serviette," such as students use abroad; while the doctor fairly staggered under the weight of a square, brass-bound chest without handles. The singularity of this unequal division of labour struck me at once.

It struck also one of the dock men, who ran forward, eager for a tip.

"Kin I carry th' box for you, boss?" he asked, at the same time reaching for it.

The doctor's thin figure seemed fairly to shrink at the idea.

"No, no!" he cried. "It iss not for you to carry!"

He hastened up the gangplank, clutching the chest close. At the top Captain Selover met him.

"Hello, doctor," he squeaked. "Here in good time. We're busy, you see. Let me carry your chest for you."

"No, no!" Dr. Schermerhorn fairly glared.

"It's almighty heavy," insisted the captain. "Let me give you a hand."

"You must not touch!" emphatically ordered the scientist. "Where iss the cabin?"

He disappeared down the companionway clasping his precious load. The young man remained on deck to superintend the stowing of the scientific goods and the personal baggage.

All this time I had been thinking busily. I remembered distinctly one other instance when Dr. Schermerhorn had disappeared. He came back inscrutably, but within a week his results on aërial photography were public property. I told myself that in the present instance his lavish use of money, the elaborate nature of his preparations, the evident secrecy of the expedition as evidenced by the fact that he had negotiated for the vessel only the day before setting sail, the importance of personal supervision as proved by the fact that he—notoriously impractical in practical matters, and notoriously disliking anything to do with business—had conducted the affair himself instead of delegating it,—why, gentlemen, don't you see that all this was more than enough to wake me up, body and soul? Suddenly I came to a definite resolution. Captain Selover had descended to the pier. I approached him.

"You need a mate," said I.

He looked me over.

"Perhaps," he admitted. "Where's your man?"

"Right here," said I.

His eyes widened a little. Otherwise he showed no sign of surprise. I cursed my clothes.

Fortunately I had my master's certificate with me—I'd passed fresh-water on the Great Lakes—I always carry that sort of document on the chance that it may come handy. It chanced to have a couple of naval endorsements, results of the late war.

"Look here," I said before I gave it to him. "You don't believe in me. My clothes are too good. That's all right. They're all I have that are good. I'm broke. I came down here wondering whether I'd better throw myself in the drink."

"You look like a dude," he squeaked. "Where did you ever ship?"

I handed him my certificate. The endorsements from Admiral Keays and Captain Arnold impressed him. He stared at me again, and a gleam of cunning crept into his eyes.

"Nothing crooked about this?" he breathed softly.

I had the key to this side of his character. You remember I had overheard the night before his statement of his moral scruples. I said nothing, but looked knowing.

"What was it?" he murmured. "Plain desertion, or something worse?"

I remained inscrutable.

"Well," he conceded, "I do need a mate; and a naval man—even if he is wantin' to get out of sight——"

"He won't spit on your decks, anyway," I broke in boldly.

Captain Selover's hairy face bristled about the mouth. This I subsequently discovered was symptom of a grin.

"You saw that, eh?" he trebled.

"Aren't you afraid he'll bring down the police and delay your sailing?" I asked.

He grinned again, with a cunning twinkle in his eye.

"You needn't worry. There ain't goin' to be any police. He had his advance money, and he won't risk it by tryin' to come back."

We came to an agreement. I professed surprise at the wages. The captain guardedly explained that the expedition was secret.

"What's our port?" I asked, to test him.

"Our papers are made out for Honolulu," he replied.

We adjourned to sign articles.

"By the way," said I, "I wish you wouldn't make them out in my own name. 'Eagen' will do."

"All right," he laughed, "I sabe. Eagen it is."

"I'll be aboard at six," said I. "I've got to make some arrangements."

"Wish you could help with the lading," said he. "Still, I can get along. Want any advance money?"

"No," I replied; then I remembered that I was supposed to be broke. "Yes," I amended.

He gave me ten dollars.

"I guess you'll show up," he said. "Wouldn't do this to everybody. But a naval man—even if he is dodgin' Uncle Sam——"

"I'll be here," I assured him.

At that time I wore a pointed beard. This I shaved. Also I was accustomed to use eye-glasses. The trouble was merely a slight astigmatism which bothered me only in reading or close inspection. I could get along perfectly well without the glasses, so I discarded them. I had my hair cut rather close. When I had put on sea boots, blue trousers and shirt, a pea jacket and a cap I felt quite safe from the recognition of a man like Dr. Schermerhorn. In fact, as you shall see, I hardly spoke to him during all the voyage out.

Promptly at six, then, I returned with a sea chest, bound I knew not whither, to be gone I knew not for how long, and pledged to act as second officer on a little hundred-and-fifty-ton schooner.