By Shore and Sedge

A Ship of ’49


Bret Harte

BETWEEN three and four in the morning the clouds broke over the Pontiac, and the moon, riding high, picked out in black and silver the long hulk that lay cradled between the iron shells and warehouses and the wooden frames and tenements on either side. The galley and covered gangway presented a mass of undefined shadow, against which the white deck shone brightly, stretching to the forecastle and bows, where the tiny glass roof of the photographer glistened like a gem in the Pontiac’s crest. So peaceful and motionless she lay that she might have been some petrifaction of a past age now first exhumed and laid bare to the cold light of the stars.

Nevertheless, this calm security was presently invaded by a sense of stealthy life and motion. What had seemed a fixed shadow suddenly detached itself from the deck and began to slip stanchion by stanchion along the bulwarks toward the companion-way. At the cabin-door it halted and crouched motionless. Then rising, it glided forward with the same staccato movement until opposite the slight elevation of the forehatch. Suddenly it darted to the hatch, unfastened and lifted it with a swift, familiar dexterity, and disappeared in the opening. But as the moon shone upon its vanishing face, it revealed the whitening eyes and teeth of the Lascar seaman.

Dropping to the lower deck lightly, he felt his way through the dark passage between the partitions, evidently less familiar to him, halting before each door to listen.

Returning forward he reached the second hatchway that had attracted Rosey’s attention, and noiselessly unclosed its fastenings. A penetrating smell of bilge arose from the opening. Drawing a small bull’s-eye lantern from his breast he lit it, and unhesitatingly let himself down to the further depth. The moving flash of his light revealed the recesses of the upper hold, the abyss of the well amidships, and glanced from the shining backs of moving zigzags of rats that seemed to outline the shadowy beams and transoms. Disregarding those curious spectators of his movements, he turned his attention eagerly to the inner casings of the hold, that seemed in one spot to have been strengthened by fresh timbers. Attacking this stealthily with the aid of some tools hidden in his oil-skin clothing, in the light of the lantern he bore a fanciful resemblance to the predatory animals around him. The low continuous sound of rasping and gnawing of timber which followed heightened the resemblance. At the end of a few minutes he had succeeded in removing enough of the outer planking to show that the entire filling of the casing between the stanchions was composed of small boxes. Dragging out one of them with feverish eagerness to the light, the Lascar forced it open. In the rays of the bull’s-eye, a wedged mass of discolored coins showed with a lurid glow. The story of the Pontiac was true—the treasure was there!

But Mr. Sleight had overlooked the logical effect of this discovery on the natural villainy of his tool. In the very moment of his triumphant execution of his patron’s suggestions the idea of keeping the treasure to himself flashed upon his mind. He had discovered it—why should he give it up to anybody? He had run all the risks; if he were detected at that moment, who would believe that his purpose there at midnight was only to satisfy some one else that the treasure was still intact? No. The circumstances were propitious; he would get the treasure out of the ship at once, drop it over her side, hastily conceal it in the nearest lot adjacent, and take it away at his convenience. Who would be the wiser for it?

But it was necessary to reconnoiter first. He knew that the loft overhead was empty. He knew that it communicated with the alley, for he had tried the door that morning. He would convey the treasure there and drop it into the alley. The boxes were heavy. Each one would require a separate journey to the ship’s side, but he would at least secure something if he were interrupted, He stripped the casing, and gathered the boxes together in a pile.

Ah, yes, it was funny too that he—the Lascar hound—the d——d nigger—should get what bigger and bullier men than he had died for! The mate’s blood was on those boxes, if the salt water had not washed it out. It was a hell of a fight when they dragged the captain—Oh, what was that? Was it the splash of a rat in the bilge, or what?

A superstitious terror had begun to seize him at the thought of blood. The stifling hold seemed again filled with struggling figures he had known, the air thick with cries and blasphemies that he had forgotten. He rose to his feet, and running quickly to the hatchway, leaped to the deck above. All was quiet. The door leading to the empty loft yielded to his touch. He entered, and, gliding through, unbarred and opened the door that gave upon the alley. The cold air and moonlight flowed in silently; the way of escape was clear. Bah! He would go back for the treasure.

He had reached the passage when the door he had just opened was suddenly darkened. Turning rapidly, he was conscious of a gaunt figure, grotesque, silent, and erect, looming on the threshold between him and the sky. Hidden in the shadow, he made a stealthy step towards it, with an iron wrench in his uplifted hand. But the next moment his eyes dilated with superstitious horror; the iron fell from his hand, and with a scream, like a frightened animal, he turned and fled into the passage. In the first access of his blind terror he tried to reach the deck above through the forehatch, but was stopped by the sound of a heavy tread overhead. The immediate fear of detection now overcame his superstition; he would have even faced the apparition again to escape through the loft; but, before he could return there, other footsteps approached rapidly from the end of the passage he would have to traverse. There was but one chance of escape left now—the forehold he had just quitted. He might hide there until the alarm was over. He glided back to the hatch, lifted it, and closed it softly over his head as the upper hatch was simultaneously raised, and the small round eyes of Abner Nott peered down upon it. The other footsteps proved to be Renshaw’s, but, attracted by the open door of the loft, he turned aside and entered. As soon as he disappeared Mr. Nott cautiously dropped through the opening to the deck below, and, going to the other hatch through which the Lascar had vanished, deliberately refastened it. In a few moments Renshaw returned with a light, and found the old man sitting on the hatch.

“The loft-door was open,” said Renshaw. “There’s little doubt whoever was here escaped that way.”

“Surely,” said Nott. There was a peculiar look of Machiavellian sagacity in his face which irritated Renshaw.

“Then you’re sure it was Ferriferes you saw pass by your window before you called me?” he asked.

Nott nodded his head with an expression of infinite profundity.

“But you say he was going from the ship. Then it could not have been he who made the noise we heard down here.”

“Mebbee no, and mebbee yes,” returned Nott, cautiously.

“But if he was already concealed inside the ship, as that open door, which you say you barred from the inside, would indicate, what the devil did he want with this?” said Renshaw, producing the monkey-wrench he had picked up.

Mr. Nott examined the tool carefully, and shook his head with momentous significance. Nevertheless, his eyes wandered to the hatch on which he was seated.

“Did you find anything disturbed there?” said Renshaw, following the direction of his eye. “Was that hatch fastened as it is now?”

“It was,” said Nott, calmly. “But ye wouldn’t mind fetchin’ me a hammer and some o’ them big nails from the locker, would yer, while I hang round here just so ez to make sure against another attack.”

Renshaw complied with his request; but as Nott proceeded to gravely nail down the fastenings of the hatch, he turned impatiently away to complete his examination of the ship. The doors of the other lofts and their fastenings appeared secure and undisturbed. Yet it was undeniable that a felonious entrance had been made, but by whom or for what purpose, still remained uncertain. Even now, Renshaw found it difficult to accept Nott’s theory that De Ferrières was the aggressor and Rosey the object, nor could he justify his own suspicion that the Lascar had obtained a surreptitious entrance under Sleight’s directions. With a feeling that if Rosey had been present he would have confessed all, and demanded from her an equal confidence, he began to hate his feeble, purposeless, and inefficient alliance with her father, who believed but dared not tax his daughter with complicity in this outrage. What could be done with a man whose only idea of action at such a moment was to nail up an undisturbed entrance in his invaded house! He was so preoccupied with these thoughts that when Nott rejoined him in the cabin he scarcely heeded his presence, and was entirely oblivious of the furtive looks which the old man from time to time cast upon his face.

“I reckon ye wouldn’t mind,” broke in Nott, suddenly, “ef I asked a favor of ye, Mr. Renshaw. Mebbee ye’ll allow it’s askin’ too much in the matter of expense; mebbee ye’ll allow it’s askin’ too much in the matter o’ time. But I kalkilate to pay all the expense, and if you’d let me know what yer vally yer time at, I reckon I could stand that. What I’d be askin’ is this. Would ye mind takin’ a letter from me to Rosey, and bringin’ back an answer?”

Renshaw stared speechlessly at this absurd realization of his wish of a moment before. “I don’t think I understand you,” he stammered.

“P’r’aps not,” returned Nott, with great gravity. “But that’s not so much matter to you ez your time and expenses.”

“I meant I should be glad to go if I can be of any service to you,” said Renshaw, hastily.

“You kin ketch the seven-o’clock boat this morning, and you’ll reach San Rafael at ten”—

“But I thought Miss Rosey went to Petaluma,” interrupted Renshaw quickly.

Nott regarded him with an expression of patronizing superiority. “That’s what we ladled out to the public gin’rally, and to Ferrers and his gang in partickler. We said Petalumey, but if you go to Madroño Cottage, San Rafael, you’ll find Rosey thar.”

If Mr. Renshaw required anything more to convince him of the necessity of coming to some understanding with Rosey at once it would have been this last evidence of her father’s utterly dark and supremely inscrutable designs. He assented quickly, and Nott handed him a note.

“Ye’ll be partickler to give this inter her own hands, and wait for an answer,” said Nott gravely.

Resisting the proposition to enter then and there into an elaborate calculation of the value of his time and the expenses of the trip, Renshaw found himself at seven o’clock on the San Rafael boat. Brief as was the journey it gave him time to reflect upon his coming interview with Rosey. He had resolved to begin by confessing all; the attempt of last night had released him from any sense of duty to Sleight. Besides, he did not doubt that Nott’s letter contained some reference to this affair only known to Nott’s dark and tortuous intelligence.

By Shore and Sedge - Contents    |     A Ship of ’49 - VIII

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