By Shore and Sedge

A Ship of ’49


Bret Harte

IT HAD rained so persistently in San Francisco during the first week of January, 1854, that a certain quagmire in the roadway of Long Wharf had become impassable, and a plank was thrown over its dangerous depth. Indeed, so treacherous was the spot that it was alleged, on good authority, that a hastily embarking traveler had once hopelessly lost his portmanteau, and was fain to dispose of his entire interest in it for the sum of two dollars and fifty cents to a speculative stranger on the wharf. As the stranger’s search was rewarded afterwards only by the discovery of the body of a casual Chinaman, who had evidently endeavored wickedly to anticipate him, a feeling of commercial insecurity was added to the other eccentricities of the locality.

The plank led to the door of a building that was a marvel even in the chaotic frontier architecture of the street. The houses on either side—irregular frames of wood or corrugated iron—bore evidence of having been quickly thrown together, to meet the requirements of the goods and passengers who were once disembarked on what was the muddy beach of the infant city. But the building in question exhibited a certain elaboration of form and design utterly inconsistent with this idea. The structure obtruded a bowed front to the street, with a curving line of small windows, surmounted by elaborate carvings and scroll work of vines and leaves, while below, in faded gilt letters, appeared the legend “Pontiac—Marseilles.” The effect of this incongruity was startling.

It is related that an inebriated miner, impeded by mud and drink before its door, was found gazing at its remarkable façade with an expression of the deepest despondency. “I hev lived a free life, pardner,” he explained thickly to the Samaritan who succored him, “and every time since I’ve been on this six weeks’ jamboree might have kalkilated it would come to this. Snakes I’ve seen afore now, and rats I’m not unfamiliar with, but when it comes to the starn of a ship risin’ up out of the street, I reckon it’s time to pass in my checks.”

“It is a ship, you blasted old soaker,” said the Samaritan curtly.

It was indeed a ship. A ship run ashore and abandoned on the beach years before by her gold-seeking crew, with the débris of her scattered stores and cargo, overtaken by the wild growth of the strange city and the reclamation of the muddy flat, wherein she lay hopelessly imbedded; her retreat cut off by wharves and quays and breakwater, jostled at first by sheds, and then impacted in a block of solid warehouses and dwellings, her rudder, port, and counter boarded in, and now gazing hopelessly through her cabin windows upon the busy street before her. But still a ship despite her transformation. The faintest line of contour yet left visible spoke of the buoyancy of another element; the balustrade of her roof was unmistakably a taffrail. The rain slipped from her swelling sides with a certain lingering touch of the sea; the soil around her was still treacherous with its suggestions, and even the wind whistled nautically over her chimney. If, in the fury of some southwesterly gale, she had one night slipped her strange moorings and left a shining track through the lower town to the distant sea, no one would have been surprised.

Least of all, perhaps, her present owner and possessor, Mr. Abner Nott. For by the irony of circumstances, Mr. Nott was a Far Western farmer who had never seen a ship before, nor a larger stream of water than a tributary of the Missouri River. In a spirit, half of fascination, half of speculation, he had bought her at the time of her abandonment, and had since mortgaged his ranch at Petaluma with his live stock, to defray the expenses of filling in the land where she stood, and the improvements of the vicinity. He had transferred his household goods and his only daughter to her cabin, and had divided the space “between decks” and her hold into lodging-rooms, and lofts for the storage of goods. It could hardly be said that the investment had been profitable. His tenants vaguely recognized that his occupancy was a sentimental rather than a commercial speculation, and often generously lent themselves to the illusion by not paying their rent. Others treated their own tenancy as a joke,—a quaint recreation born of the childlike familiarity of frontier intercourse. A few had left; carelessly abandoning their unsalable goods to their landlord, with great cheerfulness and a sense of favor. Occasionally Mr. Abner Nott, in a practical relapse, raged against the derelicts, and talked of dispossessing them, or even dismantling his tenement, but he was easily placated by a compliment to the “dear old ship,” or an effort made by some tenant to idealize his apartment. A photographer who had ingeniously utilized the forecastle for a gallery (accessible from the bows in the next street), paid no further tribute than a portrait of the pretty face of Rosey Nott. The superstitious reverence in which Abner Nott held his monstrous fancy was naturally enhanced by his purely bucolic exaggeration of its real functions and its native element. “This yer keel has sailed, and sailed, and sailed,” he would explain with some incongruity of illustration, “in a bee line, makin’ tracks for days runnin’. I reckon more storms and blizzards hez tackled her than you ken shake a stick at. She’s stampeded whales afore now, and sloshed round with pirates and freebooters in and outer the Spanish Main, and across lots from Marcelleys where she was rared. And yer she sits peaceful-like just ez if she’d never been outer a pertater patch, and hadn’t ploughed the sea with fo’sails and studdin’ sails and them things cavortin’ round her masts.”

Abner Nott’s enthusiasm was shared by his daughter, but with more imagination, and an intelligence stimulated by the scant literature of her father’s emigrant wagon and the few books found on the cabin shelves. But to her the strange shell she inhabited suggested more of the great world than the rude, chaotic civilization she saw from the cabin windows or met in the persons of her father’s lodgers. Shut up for days in this quaint tenement, she had seen it change from the enchanted playground of her childish fancy to the theater of her active maidenhood, but without losing her ideal romance in it. She had translated its history in her own way, read its quaint nautical hieroglyphics after her own fashion, and possessed herself of its secrets. She had in fancy made voyages in it to foreign lands, had heard the accents of a softer tongue on its decks, and on summer nights, from the roof of the quarter-deck, had seen mellower constellations take the place of the hard metallic glitter of the Californian skies. Sometimes, in her isolation, the long, cylindrical vault she inhabited seemed, like some vast sea-shell, to become musical with the murmurings of the distant sea. So completely had it taken the place of the usual instincts of feminine youth that she had forgotten she was pretty, or that her dresses were old in fashion and scant in quantity. After the first surprise of admiration her father’s lodgers ceased to follow the abstracted nymph except with their eyes,—partly respecting her spiritual shyness, partly respecting the jealous supervision of the paternal Nott. She seldom penetrated the crowded center of the growing city; her rare excursions were confined to the old ranch at Petaluma, whence she brought flowers and plants, and even extemporized a hanging-garden on the quarter-deck.

It was still raining, and the wind, which had increased to a gale, was dashing the drops against the slanting cabin windows with a sound like spray when Mr. Abner Nott sat before a table seriously engaged with his accounts. For it was “steamer night,”—as that momentous day of reckoning before the sailing of the regular mail steamer was briefly known to commercial San Francisco,—and Mr. Nott was subject at such times to severely practical relapses. A swinging light seemed to bring into greater relief that peculiar encased casket-like security of the low-timbered, tightly-fitting apartment, with its toy-like utilities of space, and made the pretty oval face of Rosey Nott appear a characteristic ornament. The sliding door of the cabin communicated with the main deck, now roofed in and partitioned off so as to form a small passage that led to the open starboard gangway, where a narrow, enclosed staircase built on the ship’s side took the place of the ship’s ladder under her counter, and opened in the street.

A dash of rain against the window caused Rosey to lift her eyes from her book.

“It’s much nicer here than at the ranch, father,” she said coaxingly, “even leaving alone its being a beautiful ship instead of a shanty; the wind don’t whistle through the cracks and blow out the candle when you’re reading, nor the rain spoil your things hung up against the wall. And you look more like a gentleman sitting in his own—ship—you know, looking over his bills and getting ready to give his orders.”

Vague and general as Miss Rosey’s compliment was, it had its full effect upon her father, who was at times dimly conscious of his hopeless rusticity and its incongruity with his surroundings. “Yes,” he said awkwardly, with a slight relaxation of his aggressive attitude; “yes, in course it’s more bang-up style, but it don’t pay—Rosey—it don’t pay. Yer’s the Pontiac that oughter be bringin’ in, ez rents go, at least three hundred a month, don’t make her taxes. I bin thinkin’ seriously of sellin’ her.”

As Rosey knew her father had experienced this serious contemplation on the first of every month for the last two years, and cheerfully ignored it the next day, she only said, “I’m sure the vacant rooms and lofts are all rented, father.”

“That’s it,” returned Mr. Nott thoughtfully, plucking at his bushy whiskers with his fingers and thumb as if he were removing dead and sapless incumbrances in their growth, “that’s just what it is—them’s ez in it themselves don’t pay, and them ez haz left their goods—the goods don’t pay. The feller ez stored them iron sugar kettles in the forehold, after trying to get me to make another advance on ’em, sez he believes he’ll have to sacrifice ’em to me after all, and only begs I’d give him a chance of buying back the half of ’em ten years from now, at double what I advanced him. The chap that left them five hundred cases of hair dye ’tween decks and then skipped out to Sacramento, met me the other day in the street and advised me to use a bottle ez an advertisement, or try it on the starn of the Pontiac for fireproof paint. That foolishness ez all he’s good for. And yet thar might be suthin’ in the paint, if a feller had nigger luck. Ther’s that New York chap ez bought up them damaged boxes of plug terbakker for fifty dollars a thousand, and sold ’em for foundations for that new building in Sansome Street at a thousand clear profit. It’s all luck, Rosey.”

The girl’s eyes had wandered again to the pages of her book. Perhaps she was already familiar with the text of her father’s monologue. But recognizing an additional querulousness in his voice, she laid the book aside and patiently folded her hands in her lap.

“That’s right—for I’ve suthin’ to tell ye. The fact is Sleight wants to buy the Pontiac out and out just ez she stands with the two fifty vara lots she stands on.”

“Sleight wants to buy her? Sleight?” echoed Rosey incredulously.

“You bet! Sleight—the big financier, the smartest man in ’Frisco.”

“What does he want to buy her for?” asked Rosey, knitting her pretty brows.

The apparently simple question suddenly puzzled Mr. Nott. He glanced feebly at his daughter’s face, and frowned in vacant irritation. “That’s so,” he said, drawing a long breath; “there’s suthin’ in that.”

“What did he say?” continued the young girl, impatiently.

“Not much. ‘You’ve got the Pontiac, Nott,’ sez he. ‘You bet!’ sez I. ‘What’ll you take for her and the lot she stands on?’ sez he, short and sharp. Some fellers, Rosey,” said Nott, with a cunning smile, “would hev blurted out a big figger and been cotched. That ain’t my style. I just looked at him. ‘I’ll wait fur your figgers until next steamer day,’ sez he, and off he goes like a shot. He’s awfully sharp, Rosey.”

“But if he is sharp, father, and he really wants to buy the ship,” returned Rosey, thoughtfully, “it’s only because he knows it’s valuable property, and not because he likes it as we do. He can’t take that value away even if we don’t sell it to him, and all the while we have the comfort of the dear old Pontiac, don’t you see?”

This exhaustive commercial’ reasoning was so sympathetic to Mr. Nott’s instincts that he accepted it as conclusive. He, however, deemed it wise to still preserve his practical attitude. “But that don’t make it pay by the month, Rosey. Suthin’ must be done. I’m thinking I’ll clean out that photographer.”

“Not just after he’s taken such a pretty view of the cabin front of the Pontiac from the street, father! No! He’s going to give us a copy, and put the other in a shop window in Montgomery Street.”

“That’s so,” said Mr. Nott, musingly; “it’s no slouch of an advertisement. ‘The Pontiac,’ the property of A. Nott, Esq., of St. Jo, Missouri. Send it on to your aunt Phoebe; sorter make the old folks open their eyes—oh? Well, seem’ he’s been to some expense fittin’ up an entrance from the other street, we’ll let him slide. But as to that d——d old Frenchman Ferrers, in the next loft, with his stuck-up airs and high-falutin style, we must get quit of him; he’s regularly gouged me in that ere horsehair spekilation.”

“How can you say that, father!” said Rosey, with a slight increase of color. “It was your own offer. You know those bales of curled horsehair were left behind by the late tenant to pay his rent. When Mr. De Ferri?res rented the room afterwards, you told him you’d throw them in in the place of repairs and furniture. It was your own offer.”

“Yes, but I didn’t reckon ther’d ever be a big price per pound paid for the darned stuff for sofys and cushions and sich.”

“How do you know he knew it, father?” responded Rosey.

“Then why did he look so silly at first, and then put on airs when I joked him about it, eh?”

“Perhaps he didn’t understand your joking, father. He’s a foreigner, and shy and proud, and—not like the others. I don’t think he knew what you meant then, any more than he believed he was making a bargain before. He may be poor, but I think he’s been—a—a—gentleman.”

The young girl’s animation penetrated even Mr. Nott’s slow comprehension. Her novel opposition, and even the prettiness it enhanced, gave him a dull premonition of pain. His small round eyes became abstracted, his mouth remained partly open, even his fresh color slightly paled.

“You seem to have been takin’ stock of this yer man, Rosey,” he said, with a faint attempt at archness; “if he warn’t ez old ez a crow, for all his young feathers, I’d think he was makin’ up to you.”

But the passing glow had faded from her young cheeks, and her eyes wandered again to her book. “He pays his rent regularly every steamer night,” she said, quietly, as if dismissing an exhausted subject, “and he’ll be here in a moment, I dare say.” She took up her book, and leaning her head on her hand, once more became absorbed in its pages.

An uneasy silence followed. The rain beat against the windows, the ticking of a clock became audible, but still Mr. Nott sat with vacant eyes fixed on his daughter’s face, and the constrained smile on his lips. He was conscious that he had never seen her look so pretty before, yet he could not tell why this was no longer an unalloyed satisfaction. Not but that he had always accepted the admiration of others for her as a matter of course, but for the first time he became conscious that she not only had an interest in others, but apparently a superior knowledge of them. How did she know these things about this man, and why had she only now accidentally spoken of them? He would have done so. All this passed so vaguely through his unreflective mind, that he was unable to retain any decided impression, but the far-reaching one that his lodger had obtained some occult influence over her through the exhibition of his baleful skill in the horsehair speculation. “Them tricks is likely to take a young girl’s fancy. I must look arter her,” he said to himself softly.

A slow regular step in the gangway interrupted his paternal reflections. Hastily buttoning across his chest the pea-jacket which he usually wore at home as a single concession to his nautical surroundings, he drew himself up with something of the assumption of a shipmaster, despite certain bucolic suggestions of his boots and legs. The footsteps approached nearer, and a tall figure suddenly stood in the doorway.

It was a figure so extraordinary that even in the strange masquerade of that early civilization it was remarkable; a figure with whom father and daughter were already familiar without abatement of wonder—the figure of a rejuvenated old man, padded, powdered, dyed, and painted to the verge of caricature, but without a single suggestion of ludicrousness or humor. A face so artificial that it seemed almost a mask, but, like a mask, more pathetic than amusing. He was dressed in the extreme of fashion of a dozen years before; his pearl—gray trousers strapped tightly over his varnished boots, his voluminous satin cravat and high collar embraced his rouged cheeks and dyed whiskers, his closely-buttoned frock coat clinging to a waist that seemed accented by stays.

He advanced two steps into the cabin with an upright precision of motion that might have hid the infirmities of age, and said deliberately with a foreign accent:

“You-r-r ac-coumpt?”

In the actual presence of the apparition Mr. Nott’s dignified resistance wavered. But glancing uneasily at his daughter and seeing her calm eyes fixed on the speaker without embarrassment, he folded his arms stiffly, and with a lofty simulation of examining the ceiling, said:

“Ahem! Rosa! The gentleman’s account.”

It was an infelicitous action. For the stranger, who evidently had not noticed the presence of the young girl before, started, took a step quickly forward, bent stiffly but profoundly over the little hand that held the account, raised it to his lips, and with “a thousand pardons, mademoiselle,” laid a small canvas bag containing the rent before the disorganized Mr. Nott and stiffly vanished.

The night was a troubled one to the simple-minded proprietor of the good ship Pontiac. Unable to voice his uneasiness by further discussion, but feeling that his late discomposing interview with his lodger demanded some marked protest, he absented himself on the plea of business during the rest of the evening, happily to his daughter’s utter obliviousness of the reason. Lights were burning brilliantly in counting-rooms and offices, the feverish life of the mercantile city was at its height. With a vague idea of entering into immediate negotiations with Mr. Sleight for the sale of the ship—as a direct way out of his present perplexity, he bent his steps towards the financier’s office, but paused and turned back before reaching the door. He made his way to the wharf and gazed abstractedly at the lights reflected in the dark, tremulous, jelly-like water. But wherever he went he was accompanied by the absurd figure of his lodger—a figure he had hitherto laughed at or half pitied, but which now, to his bewildered comprehension, seemed to have a fateful significance. Here a new idea seized him, and he hurried back to the ship, slackening his pace only when he arrived at his own doorway. Here he paused a moment and slowly ascended the staircase. When he reached the passage he coughed slightly and paused again. Then he pushed open the door of the darkened cabin and called softly:


“What is it, father?” said Rosey’s voice from the little state-room on the right—Rosey’s own bower.

“Nothing!” said Mr. Nott, with an affectation of languid calmness; “I only wanted to know if you was comfortable. It’s an awful busy night in town.”

“Yes, father.”

“I reckon thar’s tons o’ gold goin’ to the States tomorrow.”

“Yes, father.”

“Pretty comfortable, eh?”

“Yes, father.”

“Well, I’ll browse round a spell, and turn in myself soon.”

“Yes, father.”

Mr. Nott took down a hanging lantern, lighted it, and passed out into the gangway. Another lamp hung from the companion hatch to light the tenants to the lower deck, whence he descended. This deck was divided fore and aft by a partitioned passage,—the lofts or apartments being lighted from the ports, and one or two by a door cut through the ship’s side communicating with an alley on either side. This was the case with the loft occupied by Mr. Nott’s strange lodger, which, besides a door in the passage, had this independent communication with the alley. Nott had never known him to make use of the latter door; on the contrary, it was his regular habit to issue from his apartment at three o’clock every afternoon, dressed as he has been described, stride deliberately through the passage to the upper deck and thence into the street, where his strange figure was a feature of the principal promenade for two or three hours, returning as regularly at eight o’clock to the ship and the seclusion of his loft. Mr. Nott paused before the door, under the pretense of throwing the light before him into the shadows of the forecastle: all was silent within. He was turning back when he was impressed by the regular recurrence of a peculiar rustling sound which he had at first referred to the rubbing of the wires of the swinging lantern against his clothing. He set down the light and listened; the sound was evidently on the other side of the partition; the sound of some prolonged, rustling, scraping movement, with regular intervals. Was it due to another of Mr. Nott’s unprofitable tenants—the rats? No. A bright idea flashed upon Mr. Nott’s troubled mind. It was De Ferrières snoring! He smiled grimly. “Wonder if Rosey’d call him a gentleman if she heard that,” he chuckled to himself as he slowly made his way back to the cabin and the small state-room opposite to his daughter’s. During the rest of the night he dreamed of being compelled to give Rosey in marriage to his lodger, who added insult to the outrage by snoring audibly through the marriage service.

Meantime, in her cradle-like nest in her nautical bower, Miss Rosey slumbered as lightly. Waking from a vivid dream of Venice—a child’s Venice—seen from the swelling deck of the proudly-riding Pontiac, she was so impressed as to rise and cross on tiptoe to the little slanting port-hole. Morning was already dawning over the flat, straggling city, but from every counting-house and magazine the votive tapers of the feverish worshipers of trade and mammon were still flaring fiercely.

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