By Shore and Sedge

A Ship of ’49


Bret Harte

THE DAY following “steamer night” was usually stale and flat at San Francisco. The reaction from the feverish exaltation of the previous twenty-four hours was seen in the listless faces and lounging feet of promenaders, and was notable in the deserted offices and warehouses still redolent of last night’s gas, and strewn with the dead ashes of last night’s fires. There was a brief pause before the busy life which ran its course from “steamer day” to steamer day was once more taken up. In that interval a few anxious speculators and investors breathed freely, some critical situation was relieved, or some impending catastrophe momentarily averted. In particular, a singular stroke of good fortune that morning befell Mr. Nott. He not only secured a new tenant, but, as he sagaciously believed, introduced into the Pontiac a counteracting influence to the subtle fascinations of De Ferrières.

The new tenant apparently possessed a combination of business shrewdness and brusque frankness that strongly impressed his landlord. “You see, Rosey,” said Nott, complacently describing the interview to his daughter, “when I sorter intimated in a keerless kind o’ way that sugar kettles and hair dye was about played out ez securities, he just planked down the money for two months in advance. ‘There,’ sez he, ‘that’s your security—now where’s mine?’ ‘I reckon I don’t hitch on, pardner,’ sez I; ‘security what for?’ ‘’Spose you sell the ship?’ sez he, ‘afore the two months is up. I’ve heard that old Sleight wants to buy her.’ ‘Then you gets back your money,’ sez I. ‘And lose my room,’ sez he; ‘not much, old man. You sign a paper that whoever buys the ship inside o’ two months hez to buy me ez a tenant with it; that’s on the square.’ So I sign the paper. It was mighty cute in the young feller, wasn’t it?” he said, scanning his daughter’s pretty puzzled face a little anxiously; “and don’t you see, ez I ain’t goin’ to sell the Pontiac, it’s just about ez cute in me, eh? He’s a contractor somewhere around yer, and wants to be near his work. So he takes the room next to the Frenchman, that that ship-captain quit for the mines, and succeeds naterally to his chest and things. He’s mighty peart-looking, that young feller, Rosey—long black mustaches, all his own color, Rosey—and he’s a regular high-stepper, you bet. I reckon he’s not only been a gentleman, but ez now. Some o’ them contractors are very high-toned!”

“I don’t think we have any right to give him the captain’s chest, father,” said Rosey; “there may be some private things in it. There were some letters and photographs in the hair-dye man’s trunk that you gave the photographer.”

“That’s just it, Rosey,” returned Abner Nott with sublime unconsciousness, “photographs and love letters you can’t sell for cash, and I don’t mind givin’ ’em away, if they kin make a feller-creature happy.”

“But, father, have we the right to give ’em away?”

“They’re collateral security, Rosey.” said her father grimly. “Co-la-te-ral,” he continued, emphasizing each syllable by tapping the fist of one hand in the open palm of the other. “Co-la-te-ral is the word the big business sharps yer about call ’em. You can’t get round that.” He paused a moment, and then, as a new idea seemed to be painfully borne in his round eyes, continued cautiously: “Was that the reason why you wouldn’t touch any of them dresses from the trunks of that opery gal ez skedaddled for Sacramento? And yet them trunks I regularly bought at auction—Rosey—at auction, on spec—and they didn’t realize the cost of drayage.”

A slight color mounted to Rosey’s face. “No,” she said, hastily, “not that.” Hesitating a moment, she then drew softly to his side, and, placing her arms around his neck, turned his broad, foolish face towards her own. “Father,” she began, “when mother died, would you have liked anybody to take her trunks and paw round her things and wear them?”

“When your mother died, just this side o’ Sweetwater, Rosey,” said Mr. Nott, with beaming unconsciousness, “she had n’t any trunks. I reckon she had n’t even an extra gown hanging up in the wagin, ’cept the petticoat ez she had wrapped around yer. It was about ez much ez we could do to skirmish round with Injins, alkali, and cold, and we sorter forgot to dress for dinner. She never thought, Rosey, that you and me would live to be inhabitin’ a paliss of a real ship. Ef she had she would have died a proud woman.”

He turned his small, loving, boar-like eyes upon her as a preternaturally innocent and trusting companion of Ulysses might have regarded the transforming Circe. Rosey turned away with the faintest sigh. The habitual look of abstraction returned to her eyes as if she had once more taken refuge in her own ideal world. Unfortunately the change did not escape either the sensitive observation or the fatuous misconception of the sagacious parent. “Ye’ll be mountin’ a few furbelows and fixins, Rosey, I reckon, ez only natural. Mebbee ye’ll have to prink up a little now that we’ve got a gentleman contractor in the ship. I’ll see what I kin pick up in Montgomery Street.” And indeed he succeeded a few hours later in accomplishing with equal infelicity his generous design. When she returned from her household tasks she found on her berth a purple velvet bonnet of extraordinary make, and a pair of white satin slippers. “They’ll do for a start-off, Rosey,” he explained, “and I got ’em at my figgers.”

“But I go out so seldom, father; and a bonnet”—

“That’s so,” interrupted Mr. Nott, complacently, “it might be jest ez well for a young gal like yer to appear ez if she did go out, or would go out if she wanted to. So you kin be wearin’ that ar headstall kinder like this evening when the contractor’s here, ez if you’d jest come in from a pasear.”

Miss Rosey did not however immediately avail herself of her father’s purchase, but contented herself with the usual scarlet ribbon that like a snood confined her brown hair, when she returned to her tasks. The space between the galley and the bulwarks had been her favorite resort in summer when not actually engaged in household work. It was now lightly roofed over with boards and tarpaulin against the winter rain, but still afforded her a veranda-like space before the galley door, where she could read or sew, looking over the bow of the Pontiac to the tossing bay or the farther range of the Contra Costa hills.

Hither Miss Rosey brought the purple prodigy, partly to please her father, partly with a view of subjecting it to violent radical changes. But after trying it on before the tiny mirror in the galley once or twice, her thoughts wandered away, and she fell into one of her habitual reveries seated on a little stool before the galley door.

She was aroused from it by the slight shaking and rattling of the doors of a small hatch on the deck, not a dozen yards from where she sat. It had been evidently fastened from below during the wet weather, but as she gazed, the fastenings were removed, the doors were suddenly lifted, and the head and shoulders of a young man emerged from the deck. Partly from her father’s description, and partly from the impossibility of its being anybody else, she at once conceived it to be the new lodger. She had time to note that he was young and good-looking, graver perhaps than became his sudden pantomimic appearance, but before she could observe him closely, he had turned, closed the hatch with a certain familiar dexterity, and walked slowly towards the bows. Even in her slight bewilderment she observed that his step upon the deck seemed different to her father’s or the photographer’s, and that he laid his hand on various objects with a half-caressing ease and habit. Presently he paused and turned back, and glancing at the galley door for the first time encountered her wondering eyes.

It seemed so evident that she had been a curious spectator of his abrupt entrance on deck that he was at first disconcerted and confused. But after a second glance at her he appeared to resume his composure, and advanced a little defiantly towards the galley.

“I suppose I frightened you, popping up the fore hatch just now?”

“The what?” asked Rosey.

“The fore hatch,” he repeated impatiently, indicating it with a gesture.

“And that’s the fore hatch?” she said abstractedly. “You seem to know ships.”

“Yes—a little,” he said quietly. “I was below, and unfastened the hatch to come up the quickest way and take a look round. I’ve just hired a room here,” he added explanatorily.

“I thought so,” said Rosey simply; “you’re the contractor?”

“The contractor!—oh, yes! You seem to know it all.”

“Father’s told me.”

“Oh, he’s your father—Nott? Certainly. I see now,” he continued, looking at her with a half repressed smile. “Certainly, Miss Nott, good morning,” he half added and walked towards the companion-way. Something in the direction of his eyes as he turned away made Rosey lift her hands to her head. She had forgotten to remove her father’s baleful gift.

She snatched it off and ran quickly to the companion-way.

“Sir!” she called.

The young man turned half-way down the steps and looked up. There was a faint color in her cheeks, and her pretty brown hair was slightly disheveled from the hasty removal of the bonnet.

“Father’s very particular about strangers being on this deck,” she said a little sharply.

“Oh—ah—I’m sorry I intruded.”

“I—I—thought I’d tell you,” said Rosey, frightened by her boldness into a feeble anti-climax.

“Thank you.”

She came back slowly to the galley and picked up the unfortunate bonnet with a slight sense of remorse. Why should she feel angry with her poor father’s unhappy offering? And what business had this strange young man to use the ship so familiarly? Yet she was vaguely conscious that she and her father, with all their love and their domestic experience of it, lacked a certain instinctive ease in its possession that the half indifferent stranger had shown on first treading its deck. She walked to the hatchway and examined it with a new interest. Succeeding in lifting the hatch, she gazed at the lower deck. As she already knew the ladder had long since been removed to make room for one of the partitions, the only way the stranger could have reached it was by leaping to one of the rings. To make sure of this she let herself down holding on to the rings, and dropped a couple of feet to the deck below. She was in the narrow passage her father had penetrated the previous night. Before her was the door leading to De Ferrif�res’ loft, always locked. It was silent within; it was the hour when the old Frenchman made his habitual promenade in the city. But the light from the newly-opened hatch allowed her to see more of the mysterious recesses of the forward bulkhead than she had known before, and she was startled by observing another yawning hatchway at her feet from which the closely-fitting door had been lifted, and which the new lodger had evidently forgotten to close again. The young girl stooped down and peered cautiously into the black abyss. Nothing was to be seen, nothing heard but the distant gurgle and click of water in some remoter depth. She replaced the hatch and returned by way of the passage to the cabin.

When her father came home that night she briefly recounted the interview with the new lodger, and her discovery of his curiosity. She did this with a possible increase of her usual shyness and abstraction, and apparently more as a duty than a colloquial recreation. But it pleased Mr. Nott also to give it more than his usual misconception. “Looking round the ship, was he—eh, Rosey?” he said with infinite archness. “In course, kinder sweepin’ round the galley, and offerin’ to fetch you wood and water, eh?” Even when the young girl had picked up her book with the usual faint smile of affectionate tolerance, and then drifted away in its pages, Mr. Nott chuckled audibly. “I reckon old Frenchy didn’t come by when the young one was bedevlin’ you there.”

“What, father?” said Rosey, lifting her abstracted eyes to his face.

At the moment it seemed impossible that any human intelligence could have suspected deceit or duplicity in Rosey’s clear gaze. But Mr. Nott’s intelligence was superhuman. “I was sayin’ that Mr. Ferrières didn’t happen in while the young feller was there—eh?”

“No, father,” answered Rosey, with an effort to follow him out of the pages of her book. “Why?”

But Mr. Nott did not reply. Later in the evening he awkwardly waylaid the new lodger before the cabin-door as that gentleman would have passed on to his room.

“I’m afraid,” said the young man, glancing at Rosey, “that I intruded upon your daughter to-day. I was a little curious to see the old ship, and I didn’t know what part of it was private.”

“There ain’t no private part to this yer ship—that ez, ’cepting the rooms and lofts,” said Mr. Nott, authoritatively. Then, subjecting the anxious look of his daughter to his usual faculty for misconception, he added, “Thar ain’t no place whar you haven’t as much right to go ez any other man; thar ain’t any man, furriner or Amerykan, young or old, dyed or undyed, ez hev got any better rights. You hear me, young fellow. Mr. Renshaw—my darter. My darter—Mr. Renshaw. Rosey, give the gentleman a chair. She’s only jest come in from a promeynade, and hez jest taken off her bonnet,” he added, with an arch look at Rosey and a hurried look around the cabin, as if he hoped to see the missing gift visible to the general eye. “So take a seat a minit, won’t ye?”

But Mr. Renshaw, after an observant glance at the young girl’s abstracted face, brusquely excused himself. “I’ve got a letter to write,” he said, with a half bow to Rosey. “Good night.”

He crossed the passage to the room that had been assigned to him, and closing the door gave way to some irritability of temper in his efforts to light the lamp and adjust his writing materials. For his excuse to Mr. Nott was more truthful than most polite pretexts. He had, indeed, a letter to write, and one that, being yet young in duplicity, the near presence of his host rendered difficult. For it ran as follows:—

DEAR SLEIGHT: As I found I couldn’t get a chance to make any examination of the ship except as occasion offered, I just went in to rent lodgings in her from the God-forsaken old ass who owns her, and here I am a tenant for two months. I contracted for that time in case the old fool should sell out to some one else before. Except that she’s cut up a little between decks by the partitions for lofts that that Pike County idiot has put into her, she looks but little changed, and her fore-hold, as far as I can judge, is intact. It seems that Nott bought her just as she stands, with her cargo half out, but he wasn’t here when she broke cargo. If anybody else had bought her but this cursed Missourian, who hasn’t got the hayseed out of his hair, I might have found out something from him, and saved myself this kind of fooling, which isn’t in my line. If I could get possession of a loft on the main deck, well forward, just over the fore-hold, I could satisfy myself in a few hours, but the loft is rented by that crazy Frenchman who parades Montgomery Street every afternoon, and though old Pike County wants to turn him out, I’m afraid I can’t get it for a week to come.

If anything should happen to me, just you waltz down here and corral my things at once, for this old frontier pirate has a way of confiscating his lodgers’ trunks.

Yours, DICK.                    

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