- Author : Robert W. Chambers
- Narrator : B.J. Harrison
- Host : Alex Hofelich
- Audio Producer : Chelsea Davis
Discuss on Forums
“The Harbour Master” first appeared in Ainslee’s Magazine, August 1899 and was included in the fix-up novel In Search of the Unknown, which is available for free download through Gutenberg.
Content warning: Use of insensitive racist term (“darkie”)
The Harbour Master
by Robert W. Chambers
Because it all seems so improbable—so horribly impossible to me now, sitting here safe and sane in my own library—I hesitate to record an episode which already appears to me less horrible than grotesque. Yet, unless this story is written now, I know I shall never have the courage to tell the truth about the matter—not from fear of ridicule, but because I myself shall soon cease to credit what I now know to be true. Yet scarcely a month has elapsed since I heard the stealthy purring of what I believed to be the shoaling undertow—scarcely a month ago, with my own eyes, I saw that which, even now, I am beginning to believe never existed. As for the harbor-master—and the blow I am now striking at the old order of things—But of that I shall not speak now, or later; I shall try to tell the story simply and truthfully, and let my friends testify as to my probity and the publishers of this book corroborate them.
On the 29th of February I resigned my position under the government and left Washington to accept an offer from Professor Farrago—whose name he kindly permits me to use—and on the first day of April I entered upon my new and congenial duties as general superintendent of the water-fowl department connected with the Zoological Gardens then in course of erection at Bronx Park, New York.
For a week I followed the routine, examining the new foundations, studying the architect’s plans, following the surveyors through the Bronx thickets, suggesting arrangements for water-courses and pools destined to be included in the enclosures for swans, geese, pelicans, herons, and such of the waders and swimmers as we might expect to acclimate in Bronx Park.
It was at that time the policy of the trustees and officers of the Zoological Gardens neither to employ collectors nor to send out expeditions in search of specimens. The society decided to depend upon voluntary contributions, and I was always busy, part of the day, in dictating answers to correspondents who wrote offering their services as hunters of big game, collectors of all sorts of fauna, trappers, snarers, and also to those who offered specimens for sale, usually at exorbitant rates.
To the proprietors of five-legged kittens, mangy lynxes, moth-eaten coyotes, and dancing bears I returned courteous but uncompromising refusals—of course, first submitting all such letters, together with my replies, to Professor Farrago.
One day towards the end of May, however, just as I was leaving Bronx Park to return to town, Professor Lesard, of the reptilian department, called out to me that Professor Farrago wanted to see me a moment; so I put my pipe into my pocket again and retraced my steps to the temporary, wooden building occupied by Professor Farrago, general superintendent of the Zoological Gardens. The professor, who was sitting at his desk before a pile of letters and replies submitted for approval by me, pushed his glasses down and looked over them at me with a whimsical smile that suggested amusement, impatience, annoyance, and perhaps a faint trace of apology.
“Now, here’s a letter,” he said, with a deliberate gesture towards a sheet of paper impaled on a file—”a letter that I suppose you remember.” He disengaged the sheet of paper and handed it to me.
“Oh yes,” I replied, with a shrug; “of course the man is mistaken—or—”
“Or what?” demanded Professor Farrago, tranquilly, wiping his glasses.
“—Or a liar,” I replied.
After a silence he leaned back in his chair and bade me read the letter to him again, and I did so with a contemptuous tolerance for the writer, who must have been either a very innocent victim or a very stupid swindler. I said as much to Professor Farrago, but, to my surprise, he appeared to waver.
“I suppose,” he said, with his near-sighted, embarrassed smile, “that nine hundred and ninety-nine men in a thousand would throw that letter aside and condemn the writer as a liar or a fool?”
“In my opinion,” said I, “he’s one or the other.”
“He isn’t—in mine,” said the professor, placidly.
“What!” I exclaimed. “Here is a man living all alone on a strip of rock and sand between the wilderness and the sea, who wants you to send somebody to take charge of a bird that doesn’t exist!”
“How do you know,” asked Professor Farrago, “that the bird in question does not exist?”
“It is generally accepted,” I replied, sarcastically, “that the great auk has been extinct for years. Therefore I may be pardoned for doubting that our correspondent possesses a pair of them alive.”
“Oh, you young fellows,” said the professor, smiling wearily, “you embark on a theory for destinations that don’t exist.”
He leaned back in his chair, his amused eyes searching space for the imagery that made him smile.
“Like swimming squirrels, you navigate with the help of Heaven and a stiff breeze, but you never land where you hope to—do you?”
Rather red in the face, I said: “Don’t you believe the great auk to be extinct?”
“Audubon saw the great auk.”
“Who has seen a single specimen since?”
“Nobody—except our correspondent here,” he replied, laughing.
I laughed, too, considering the interview at an end, but the professor went on, coolly:
“Whatever it is that our correspondent has—and I am daring to believe that it is the great auk itself—I want you to secure it for the society.”
When my astonishment subsided my first conscious sentiment was one of pity. Clearly, Professor Farrago was on the verge of dotage—ah, what a loss to the world!
I believe now that Professor Farrago perfectly interpreted my thoughts, but he betrayed neither resentment nor impatience. I drew a chair up beside his desk—there was nothing to do but to obey, and this fool’s errand was none of my conceiving.
Together we made out a list of articles necessary for me and itemized the expenses I might incur, and I set a date for my return, allowing no margin for a successful termination to the expedition.
“Never mind that,” said the professor. “What I want you to do is to get those birds here safely. Now, how many men will you take?”
“None,” I replied, bluntly; “it’s a useless expense, unless there is something to bring back. If there is I’ll wire you, you may be sure.”
“Very well,” said Professor Farrago, good-humoredly, “you shall have all the assistance you may require. Can you leave to-night?”
The old gentleman was certainly prompt. I nodded, half-sulkily, aware of his amusement.
“So,” I said, picking up my hat, “I am to start north to find a place called Black Harbor, where there is a man named Halyard who possesses, among other household utensils, two extinct great auks—”
We were both laughing by this time. I asked him why on earth he credited the assertion of a man he had never before heard of.
“I suppose,” he replied, with the same half-apologetic, half-humorous smile, “it is instinct. I feel, somehow, that this man Halyard has got an auk—perhaps two. I can’t get away from the idea that we are on the eve of acquiring the rarest of living creatures. It’s odd for a scientist to talk as I do; doubtless you’re shocked—admit it, now!”
But I was not shocked; on the contrary, I was conscious that the same strange hope that Professor Farrago cherished was beginning, in spite of me, to stir my pulses, too.
“If he has—” I began, then stopped.
The professor and I looked hard at each other in silence.
“Go on,” he said, encouragingly.
But I had nothing more to say, for the prospect of beholding with my own eyes a living specimen of the great auk produced a series of conflicting emotions within me which rendered speech profanely superfluous.
As I took my leave Professor Farrago came to the door of the temporary, wooden office and handed me the letter written by the man Halyard. I folded it and put it into my pocket, as Halyard might require it for my own identification.
“How much does he want for the pair?” I asked.
“Ten thousand dollars. Don’t demur—if the birds are really—”
“I know,” I said, hastily, not daring to hope too much.
“One thing more,” said Professor Farrago, gravely; “you know, in that last paragraph of his letter, Halyard speaks of something else in the way of specimens—an undiscovered species of amphibious biped—just read that paragraph again, will you?”
I drew the letter from my pocket and read as he directed:
“When you have seen the two living specimens of the great auk, and have satisfied yourself that I tell the truth, you may be wise enough to listen without prejudice to a statement I shall make concerning the existence of the strangest creature ever fashioned. I will merely say, at this time, that the creature referred to is an amphibious biped and inhabits the ocean near this coast. More I cannot say, for I personally have not seen the animal, but I have a witness who has, and there are many who affirm that they have seen the creature. You will naturally say that my statement amounts to nothing; but when your representative arrives, if he be free from prejudice, I expect his reports to you concerning this sea-biped will confirm the solemn statements of a witness I know to be unimpeachable.
“Yours truly, Burton Halyard.
“Well,” I said, after a moment’s thought, “here goes for the wild-goose chase.”
“Wild auk, you mean,” said Professor Farrago, shaking hands with me. “You will start to-night, won’t you?”
“Yes, but Heaven knows how I’m ever going to land in this man Halyard’s door-yard. Good-bye!”
“About that sea-biped—” began Professor Farrago, shyly.
“Oh, don’t!” I said; “I can swallow the auks, feathers and claws, but if this fellow Halyard is hinting he’s seen an amphibious creature resembling a man—”
“—Or a woman,” said the professor, cautiously.
I retired, disgusted, my faith shaken in the mental vigor of Professor Farrago.
The three days’ voyage by boat and rail was irksome. I bought my kit at Sainte Croix, on the Central Pacific Railroad, and on June 1st I began the last stage of my journey via the Sainte Isole broad-gauge, arriving in the wilderness by daylight. A tedious forced march by blazed trail, freshly spotted on the wrong side, of course, brought me to the northern terminus of the rusty, narrow-gauge lumber railway which runs from the heart of the hushed pine wilderness to the sea.
Already a long train of battered flat-cars, piled with sluice-props and roughly hewn sleepers, was moving slowly off into the brooding forest gloom, when I came in sight of the track; but I developed a gratifying and unexpected burst of speed, shouting all the while. The train stopped; I swung myself aboard the last car, where a pleasant young fellow was sitting on the rear brake, chewing spruce and reading a letter.
“Come aboard, sir,” he said, looking up with a smile; “I guess you’re the man in a hurry.”
“I’m looking for a man named Halyard,” I said, dropping rifle and knapsack on the fresh-cut, fragrant pile of pine. “Are you Halyard?”
“No, I’m Francis Lee, bossing the mica pit at Port-of-Waves,” he replied, “but this letter is from Halyard, asking me to look out for a man in a hurry from Bronx Park, New York.”
“I’m that man,” said I, filling my pipe and offering him a share of the weed of peace, and we sat side by side smoking very amiably, until a signal from the locomotive sent him forward and I was left alone, lounging at ease, head pillowed on both arms, watching the blue sky flying through the branches overhead.
Long before we came in sight of the ocean I smelled it; the fresh, salt aroma stole into my senses, drowsy with the heated odor of pine and hemlock, and I sat up, peering ahead into the dusky sea of pines.
Fresher and fresher came the wind from the sea, in puffs, in mild, sweet breezes, in steady, freshening currents, blowing the feathery crowns of the pines, setting the balsam’s blue tufts rocking.
Lee wandered back over the long line of flats, balancing himself nonchalantly as the cars swung around a sharp curve, where water dripped from a newly propped sluice that suddenly emerged from the depths of the forest to run parallel to the railroad track.
“Built it this spring,” he said, surveying his handiwork, which seemed to undulate as the cars swept past. “It runs to the cove—or ought to—” He stopped abruptly with a thoughtful glance at me.
“So you’re going over to Halyard’s?” he continued, as though answering a question asked by himself.
“You’ve never been there—of course?”
“No,” I said, “and I’m not likely to go again.”
I would have told him why I was going if I had not already begun to feel ashamed of my idiotic errand.
“I guess you’re going to look at those birds of his,” continued Lee, placidly.
“I guess I am,” I said, sulkily, glancing askance to see whether he was smiling.
But he only asked me, quite seriously, whether a great auk was really a very rare bird; and I told him that the last one ever seen had been found dead off Labrador in January, 1870. Then I asked him whether these birds of Halyard’s were really great auks, and he replied, somewhat indifferently, that he supposed they were—at least, nobody had ever before seen such birds near Port-of-Waves.
“There’s something else,” he said, running, a pine-sliver through his pipe-stem—”something that interests us all here more than auks, big or little. I suppose I might as well speak of it, as you are bound to hear about it sooner or later.”
He hesitated, and I could see that he was embarrassed, searching for the exact words to convey his meaning.
“If,” said I, “you have anything in this region more important to science than the great auk, I should be very glad to know about it.”
Perhaps there was the faintest tinge of sarcasm in my voice, for he shot a sharp glance at me and then turned slightly. After a moment, however, he put his pipe into his pocket, laid hold of the brake with both hands, vaulted to his perch aloft, and glanced down at me.
“Did you ever hear of the harbor-master?” he asked, maliciously.
“Which harbor-master?” I inquired.
“You’ll know before long,” he observed, with a satisfied glance into perspective.
This rather extraordinary observation puzzled me. I waited for him to resume, and, as he did not, I asked him what he meant.
“If I knew,” he said, “I’d tell you. But, come to think of it, I’d be a fool to go into details with a scientific man. You’ll hear about the harbor-master—perhaps you will see the harbor-master. In that event I should be glad to converse with you on the subject.”
I could not help laughing at his prim and precise manner, and, after a moment, he also laughed, saying:
“It hurts a man’s vanity to know he knows a thing that somebody else knows he doesn’t know. I’m damned if I say another word about the harbor-master until you’ve been to Halyard’s!”
“A harbor-master,” I persisted, “is an official who superintends the mooring of ships—isn’t he?”
But he refused to be tempted into conversation, and we lounged silently on the lumber until a long, thin whistle from the locomotive and a rush of stinging salt-wind brought us to our feet. Through the trees I could see the bluish-black ocean, stretching out beyond black headlands to meet the clouds; a great wind was roaring among the trees as the train slowly came to a stand-still on the edge of the primeval forest.
Lee jumped to the ground and aided me with my rifle and pack, and then the train began to back away along a curved side-track which, Lee said, led to the mica-pit and company stores.
“Now what will you do?” he asked, pleasantly. “I can give you a good dinner and a decent bed to-night if you like—and I’m sure Mrs. Lee would be very glad to have you stop with us as long as you choose.”
I thanked him, but said that I was anxious to reach Halyard’s before dark, and he very kindly led me along the cliffs and pointed out the path.
“This man Halyard,” he said, “is an invalid. He lives at a cove called Black Harbor, and all his truck goes through to him over the company’s road. We receive it here, and send a pack-mule through once a month. I’ve met him; he’s a bad-tempered hypochondriac, a cynic at heart, and a man whose word is never doubted. If he says he has a great auk, you may be satisfied he has.”
My heart was beating with excitement at the prospect; I looked out across the wooded headlands and tangled stretches of dune and hollow, trying to realize what it might mean to me, to Professor Farrago, to the world, if I should lead back to New York a live auk.
“He’s a crank,” said Lee; “frankly, I don’t like him. If you find it unpleasant there, come back to us.”
“Does Halyard live alone?” I asked.
“Yes—except for a professional trained nurse—poor thing!”
“No,” said Lee, disgustedly.
Presently he gave me a peculiar glance; hesitated, and finally said: “Ask Halyard to tell you about his nurse and—the harbor-master. Good-bye—I’m due at the quarry. Come and stay with us whenever you care to; you will find a welcome at Port-of-Waves.”
We shook hands and parted on the cliff, he turning back into the forest along the railway, I starting northward, pack slung, rifle over my shoulder. Once I met a group of quarrymen, faces burned brick-red, scarred hands swinging as they walked. And, as I passed them with a nod, turning, I saw that they also had turned to look after me, and I caught a word or two of their conversation, whirled back to me on the sea-wind.
They were speaking of the harbor-master.
Towards sunset I came out on a sheer granite cliff where the sea-birds were whirling and clamoring, and the great breakers dashed, rolling in double-thundered reverberations on the sun-dyed, crimson sands below the rock.
Across the half-moon of beach towered another cliff, and, behind this, I saw a column of smoke rising in the still air. It certainly came from Halyard’s chimney, although the opposite cliff prevented me from seeing the house itself.
I rested a moment to refill my pipe, then resumed rifle and pack, and cautiously started to skirt the cliffs. I had descended half-way towards the beech, and was examining the cliff opposite, when something on the very top of the rock arrested my attention—a man darkly outlined against the sky. The next moment, however, I knew it could not be a man, for the object suddenly glided over the face of the cliff and slid down the sheer, smooth lace like a lizard. Before I could get a square look at it, the thing crawled into the surf—or, at least, it seemed to—but the whole episode occurred so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that I was not sure I had seen anything at all.
However, I was curious enough to climb the cliff on the land side and make my way towards the spot where I imagined I saw the man. Of course, there was nothing there—not a trace of a human being, I mean. Something had been there—a sea-otter, possibly—for the remains of a freshly killed fish lay on the rock, eaten to the back-bone and tail.
The next moment, below me, I saw the house, a freshly painted, trim, flimsy structure, modern, and very much out of harmony with the splendid savagery surrounding it. It struck a nasty, cheap note in the noble, gray monotony of headland and sea.
The descent was easy enough. I crossed the crescent beach, hard as pink marble, and found a little trodden path among the rocks, that led to the front porch of the house.
There were two people on the porch—I heard their voices before I saw them—and when I set my foot upon the wooden steps, I saw one of them, a woman, rise from her chair and step hastily towards me.
“Come back!” cried the other, a man with a smooth-shaven, deeply lined face, and a pair of angry, blue eyes; and the woman stepped back quietly, acknowledging my lifted hat with a silent inclination.
The man, who was reclining in an invalid’s rolling-chair, clapped both large, pale hands to the wheels and pushed himself out along the porch. He had shawls pinned about him, an untidy, drab-colored hat on his head, and, when he looked down at me, he scowled.
“I know who you are,” he said, in his acid voice; “you’re one of the Zoological men from Bronx Park. You look like it, anyway.”
“It is easy to recognize you from your reputation,” I replied, irritated at his discourtesy.
“Really,” he replied, with something between a sneer and a laugh, “I’m obliged for your frankness. You’re after my great auks, are you not?”
“Nothing else would have tempted me into this place,” I replied, sincerely.
“Thank Heaven for that,” he said. “Sit down a moment; you’ve interrupted us.” Then, turning to the young woman, who wore the neat gown and tiny cap of a professional nurse, he bade her resume what she had been saying. She did so, with deprecating glance at me, which made the old man sneer again.
“It happened so suddenly,” she said, in her low voice, “that I had no chance to get back. The boat was drifting in the cove; I sat in the stern, reading, both oars shipped, and the tiller swinging. Then I heard a scratching under the boat, but thought it might be sea-weed—and, next moment, came those soft thumpings, like the sound of a big fish rubbing its nose against a float.”
Halyard clutched the wheels of his chair and stared at the girl in grim displeasure.
“Didn’t you know enough to be frightened?” he demanded.
“No—not then,” she said, coloring faintly; “but when, after a few moments, I looked up and saw the harbor-master running up and down the beach, I was horribly frightened.”
“Really?” said Halyard, sarcastically; “it was about time.” Then, turning to me, he rasped out: “And that young lady was obliged to row all the way to Port-of-Waves and call to Lee’s quarrymen to take her boat in.”
Completely mystified, I looked from Halyard to the girl, not in the least comprehending what all this meant.
“That will do,” said Halyard, ungraciously, which curt phrase was apparently the usual dismissal for the nurse.
She rose, and I rose, and she passed me with an inclination, stepping noiselessly into the house.
“I want beef-tea!” bawled Halyard after her; then he gave me an unamiable glance.
“I was a well-bred man,” he sneered; “I’m a Harvard graduate, too, but I live as I like, and I do what I like, and I say what I like.”
“You certainly are not reticent,” I said, disgusted.
“Why should I be?” he rasped; “I pay that young woman for my irritability; it’s a bargain between us.”
“In your domestic affairs,” I said, “there is nothing that interests me. I came to see those auks.”
“You probably believe them to be razor-billed auks,” he said, contemptuously. “But they’re not; they’re great auks.”
I suggested that he permit me to examine them, and he replied, indifferently, that they were in a pen in his backyard, and that I was free to step around the house when I cared to.
I laid my rifle and pack on the veranda, and hastened off with mixed emotions, among which hope no longer predominated. No man in his senses would keep two such precious prizes in a pen in his backyard, I argued, and I was perfectly prepared to find anything from a puffin to a penguin in that pen.
I shall never forget, as long as I live, my stupor of amazement when I came to the wire-covered enclosure. Not only were there two great auks in the pen, alive, breathing, squatting in bulky majesty on their sea-weed bed, but one of them was gravely contemplating two newly hatched chicks, all bill and feet, which nestled sedately at the edge of a puddle of salt-water, where some small fish were swimming.
For a while excitement blinded, nay, deafened me. I tried to realize that I was gazing upon the last individuals of an all but extinct race—the sole survivors of the gigantic auk, which, for thirty years, has been accounted an extinct creature.
I believe that I did not move muscle nor limb until the sun had gone down and the crowding darkness blurred my straining eyes and blotted the great, silent, bright-eyed birds from sight.
Even then I could not tear myself away from the enclosure; I listened to the strange, drowsy note of the male bird, the fainter responses of the female, the thin plaints of the chicks, huddling under her breast; I heard their flipper-like, embryotic wings beating sleepily as the birds stretched and yawned their beaks and clacked them, preparing for slumber.
“If you please,” came a soft voice from the door, “Mr. Halyard awaits your company to dinner.”
I dined well—or, rather, I might have enjoyed my dinner if Mr. Halyard had been eliminated; and the feast consisted exclusively of a joint of beef, the pretty nurse, and myself. She was exceedingly attractive—with a disturbing fashion of lowering her head and raising her dark eyes when spoken to.
As for Halyard, he was unspeakable, bundled up in his snuffy shawls, and making uncouth noises over his gruel. But it is only just to say that his table was worth sitting down to and his wine was sound as a bell.
“Yah!” he snapped, “I’m sick of this cursed soup—and I’ll trouble you to fill my glass—”
“It is dangerous for you to touch claret,” said the pretty nurse.
“I might as well die at dinner as anywhere,” he observed.
“Certainly,” said I, cheerfully passing the decanter, but he did not appear overpleased with the attention.
“I can’t smoke, either,” he snarled, hitching the shawls around until he looked like Richard the Third.
However, he was good enough to shove a box of cigars at me, and I took one and stood up, as the pretty nurse slipped past and vanished into the little parlor beyond.
We sat there for a while without speaking. He picked irritably at the bread-crumbs on the cloth, never glancing in my direction; and I, tired from my long foot-tour, lay back in my chair, silently appreciating one of the best cigars I ever smoked.
“Well,” he rasped out at length, “what do you think of my auks—and my veracity?”
I told him that both were unimpeachable.
“Didn’t they call me a swindler down there at your museum?” he demanded.
I admitted that I had heard the term applied. Then I made a clean breast of the matter, telling him that it was I who had doubted; that my chief, Professor Farrago, had sent me against my will, and that I was ready and glad to admit that he, Mr. Halyard, was a benefactor of the human race.
“Bosh!” he said. “What good does a confounded wobbly, bandy-toed bird do to the human race?”
But he was pleased, nevertheless; and presently he asked me, not unamiably, to punish his claret again.
“I’m done for,” he said; “good things to eat and drink are no good to me. Some day I’ll get mad enough to have a fit, and then—”
He paused to yawn.
“Then,” he continued, “that little nurse of mine will drink up my claret and go back to civilization, where people are polite.”
Somehow or other, in spite of the fact that Halyard was an old pig, what he said touched me. There was certainly not much left in life for him—as he regarded life.
“I’m going to leave her this house,” he said, arranging his shawls. “She doesn’t know it. I’m going to leave her my money, too. She doesn’t know that. Good Lord! What kind of a woman can she be to stand my bad temper for a few dollars a month!”
“I think,” said I, “that it’s partly because she’s poor, partly because she’s sorry for you.”
He looked up with a ghastly smile.
“You think she really is sorry?”
Before I could answer he went on: “I’m no mawkish sentimentalist, and I won’t allow anybody to be sorry for me—do you hear?”
“Oh, I’m not sorry for you!” I said, hastily, and, for the first time since I had seen him, he laughed heartily, without a sneer.
We both seemed to feel better after that; I drank his wine and smoked his cigars, and he appeared to take a certain grim pleasure in watching me.
“There’s no fool like a young fool,” he observed, presently.
As I had no doubt he referred to me, I paid him no attention.
After fidgeting with his shawls, he gave me an oblique scowl and asked me my age.
“Twenty-four,” I replied.
“Sort of a tadpole, aren’t you?” he said.
As I took no offence, he repeated the remark.
“Oh, come,” said I, “there’s no use in trying to irritate me. I see through you; a row acts like a cocktail on you—but you’ll have to stick to gruel in my company.”
“I call that impudence!” he rasped out, wrathfully.
“I don’t care what you call it,” I replied, undisturbed, “I am not going to be worried by you. Anyway,” I ended, “it is my opinion that you could be very good company if you chose.”
The proposition appeared to take his breath away—at least, he said nothing more; and I finished my cigar in peace and tossed the stump into a saucer.
“Now,” said I, “what price do you set upon your birds, Mr. Halyard?”
“Ten thousand dollars,” he snapped, with an evil smile.
“You will receive a certified check when the birds are delivered,” I said, quietly.
“You don’t mean to say you agree to that outrageous bargain—and I won’t take a cent less, either—Good Lord!—haven’t you any spirit left?” he cried, half rising from his pile of shawls.
His piteous eagerness for a dispute sent me into laughter impossible to control, and he eyed me, mouth open, animosity rising visibly.
Then he seized the wheels of his invalid chair and trundled away, too mad to speak; and I strolled out into the parlor, still laughing.
The pretty nurse was there, sewing under a hanging lamp.
“If I am not indiscreet—” I began.
“Indiscretion is the better part of valor,” said she, dropping her head but raising her eyes.
So I sat down with a frivolous smile peculiar to the appreciated.
“Doubtless,” said I, “you are hemming a ‘kerchief.”
“Doubtless I am not,” she said; “this is a night-cap for Mr. Halyard.”
A mental vision of Halyard in a night-cap, very mad, nearly set me laughing again.
“Like the King of Yvetot, he wears his crown in bed,” I said, flippantly.
“The King of Yvetot might have made that remark,” she observed, re-threading her needle.
It is unpleasant to be reproved. How large and red and hot a man’s ears feel.
To cool them, I strolled out to the porch; and, after a while, the pretty nurse came out, too, and sat down in a chair not far away. She probably regretted her lost opportunity to be flirted with.
“I have so little company—it is a great relief to see somebody from the world,” she said. “If you can be agreeable, I wish you would.”
The idea that she had come out to see me was so agreeable that I remained speechless until she said: “Do tell me what people are doing in New York.”
So I seated myself on the steps and talked about the portion of the world inhabited by me, while she sat sewing in the dull light that straggled out from the parlor windows.
She had a certain coquetry of her own, using the usual methods with an individuality that was certainly fetching. For instance, when she lost her needle—and, another time, when we both, on hands and knees, hunted for her thimble.
However, directions for these pastimes may be found in contemporary classics.
I was as entertaining as I could be—perhaps not quite as entertaining as a young man usually thinks he is. However, we got on very well together until I asked her tenderly who the harbor-master might be, whom they all discussed so mysteriously.
“I do not care to speak about it,” she said, with a primness of which I had not suspected her capable.
Of course I could scarcely pursue the subject after that—and, indeed, I did not intend to—so I began to tell her how I fancied I had seen a man on the cliff that afternoon, and how the creature slid over the sheer rock like a snake.
To my amazement, she asked me to kindly discontinue the account of my adventures, in an icy tone, which left no room for protest.
“It was only a sea-otter,” I tried to explain, thinking perhaps she did not care for snake stories.
But the explanation did not appear to interest her, and I was mortified to observe that my impression upon her was anything but pleasant.
“She doesn’t seem to like me and my stories,” thought I, “but she is too young, perhaps, to appreciate them.”
So I forgave her—for she was even prettier than I had thought her at first—and I took my leave, saying that Mr. Halyard would doubtless direct me to my room.
Halyard was in his library, cleaning a revolver, when I entered.
“Your room is next to mine,” he said; “pleasant dreams, and kindly refrain from snoring.”
“May I venture an absurd hope that you will do the same!” I replied, politely.
That maddened him, so I hastily withdrew.
I had been asleep for at least two hours when a movement by my bedside and a light in my eyes awakened me. I sat bolt upright in bed, blinking at Halyard, who, clad in a dressing-gown and wearing a night-cap, had wheeled himself into my room with one hand, while with the other he solemnly waved a candle over my head.
“I’m so cursed lonely,” he said—”come, there’s a good fellow—talk to me in your own original, impudent way.”
I objected strenuously, but he looked so worn and thin, so lonely and bad-tempered, so lovelessly grotesque, that I got out of bed and passed a spongeful of cold water over my head.
Then I returned to bed and propped the pillows up for a back-rest, ready to quarrel with him if it might bring some little pleasure into his morbid existence.
“No,” he said, amiably, “I’m too worried to quarrel, but I’m much obliged for your kindly offer. I want to tell you something.”
“What?” I asked, suspiciously.
“I want to ask you if you ever saw a man with gills like a fish?”
“Gills?” I repeated.
“Yes, gills! Did you?”
“No,” I replied, angrily, “and neither did you.”
“No, I never did,” he said, in a curiously placid voice, “but there’s a man with gills like a fish who lives in the ocean out there. Oh, you needn’t look that way—nobody ever thinks of doubting my word, and I tell you that there’s a man—or a thing that looks like a man—as big as you are, too—all slate-colored—with nasty red gills like a fish!—and I’ve a witness to prove what I say!”
“Who?” I asked, sarcastically.
“The witness? My nurse.”
“Oh! She saw a slate-colored man with gills?”
“Yes, she did. So did Francis Lee, superintendent of the Mica Quarry Company at Port-of-Waves. So have a dozen men who work in the quarry. Oh, you needn’t laugh, young man. It’s an old story here, and anybody can tell you about the harbor-master.”
“The harbor-master!” I exclaimed.
“Yes, that slate-colored thing with gills, that looks like a man—and—by Heaven! is a man—that’s the harbor-master. Ask any quarryman at Port-of-Waves what it is that comes purring around their boats at the wharf and unties painters and changes the mooring of every cat-boat in the cove at night! Ask Francis Lee what it was he saw running and leaping up and down the shoal at sunset last Friday! Ask anybody along the coast what sort of a thing moves about the cliffs like a man and slides over them into the sea like an otter—”
“I saw it do that!” I burst out.
“Oh, did you? Well, what was it?”
Something kept me silent, although a dozen explanations flew to my lips.
After a pause, Halyard said: “You saw the harbor-master, that’s what you saw!”
I looked at him without a word.
“Don’t mistake me,” he said, pettishly; “I don’t think that the harbor-master is a spirit or a sprite or a hobgoblin, or any sort of damned rot. Neither do I believe it to be an optical illusion.”
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“I think it’s a man—I think it’s a branch of the human race—that’s what I think. Let me tell you something: the deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean is a trifle over five miles deep—and I suppose you know that this place lies only about a quarter of a mile off this headland. The British exploring vessel, Gull, Captain Marotte, discovered and sounded it, I believe. Anyway, it’s there, and it’s my belief that the profound depths are inhabited by the remnants of the last race of amphibious human beings!”
This was childish; I did not bother to reply.
“Believe it or not, as you will,” he said, angrily; “one thing I know, and that is this: the harbor-master has taken to hanging around my cove, and he is attracted by my nurse! I won’t have it! I’ll blow his fishy gills out of his head if I ever get a shot at him! I don’t care whether it’s homicide or not—anyway, it’s a new kind of murder and it attracts me!”
I gazed at him incredulously, but he was working himself into a passion, and I did not choose to say what I thought.
“Yes, this slate-colored thing with gills goes purring and grinning and spitting about after my nurse—when she walks, when she rows, when she sits on the beach! Gad! It drives me nearly frantic. I won’t tolerate it, I tell you!”
“No,” said I, “I wouldn’t either.” And I rolled over in bed convulsed with laughter.
The next moment I heard my door slam. I smothered my mirth and rose to close the window, for the land-wind blew cold from the forest, and a drizzle was sweeping the carpet as far as my bed.
That luminous glare which sometimes lingers after the stars go out, threw a trembling, nebulous radiance over sand and cove. I heard the seething currents under the breakers’ softened thunder—louder than I ever heard it. Then, as I closed my window, lingering for a last look at the crawling tide, I saw a man standing, ankle-deep, in the surf, all alone there in the night. But—was it a man? For the figure suddenly began running over the beach on all fours like a beetle, waving its limbs like feelers. Before I could throw open the window again it darted into the surf, and, when I leaned out into the chilling drizzle, I saw nothing save the flat ebb crawling on the coast—I heard nothing save the purring of bubbles on seething sands.
It took me a week to perfect my arrangements for transporting the great auks, by water, to Port-of-Waves, where a lumber schooner was to be sent from Petite Sainte Isole, chartered by me for a voyage to New York.
I had constructed a cage made of osiers, in which my auks were to squat until they arrived at Bronx Park. My telegrams to Professor Farrago were brief. One merely said “Victory!” Another explained that I wanted no assistance; and a third read: “Schooner chartered. Arrive New York July 1st. Send furniture-van to foot of Bluff Street.”
My week as a guest of Mr. Halyard proved interesting. I wrangled with that invalid to his heart’s content, I worked all day on my osier cage, I hunted the thimble in the moonlight with the pretty nurse. We sometimes found it.
As for the thing they called the harbor-master, I saw it a dozen times, but always either at night or so far away and so close to the sea that of course no trace of it remained when I reached the spot, rifle in hand.
I had quite made up my mind that the so-called harbor-master was a demented darky—wandered from, Heaven knows where—perhaps shipwrecked and gone mad from his sufferings. Still, it was far from pleasant to know that the creature was strongly attracted by the pretty nurse.
She, however, persisted in regarding the harbor-master as a sea-creature; she earnestly affirmed that it had gills, like a fish’s gills, that it had a soft, fleshy hole for a mouth, and its eyes were luminous and lidless and fixed.
“Besides,” she said, with a shudder, “it’s all slate color, like a porpoise, and it looks as wet as a sheet of india-rubber in a dissecting-room.”
The day before I was to set sail with my auks in a cat-boat bound for Port-of-Waves, Halyard trundled up to me in his chair and announced his intention of going with me.
“Going where?” I asked.
“To Port-of-Waves and then to New York,” he replied, tranquilly.
I was doubtful, and my lack of cordiality hurt his feelings.
“Oh, of course, if you need the sea-voyage—” I began.
“I don’t; I need you,” he said, savagely; “I need the stimulus of our daily quarrel. I never disagreed so pleasantly with anybody in my life; it agrees with me; I am a hundred per cent. better than I was last week.”
I was inclined to resent this, but something in the deep-lined face of the invalid softened me. Besides, I had taken a hearty liking to the old pig.
“I don’t want any mawkish sentiment about it,” he said, observing me closely; “I won’t permit anybody to feel sorry for me—do you understand?”
“I’ll trouble you to use a different tone in addressing me,” I replied, hotly; “I’ll feel sorry for you if I choose to!” And our usual quarrel proceeded, to his deep satisfaction.
By six o’clock next evening I had Halyard’s luggage stowed away in the cat-boat, and the pretty nurse’s effects corded down, with the newly hatched auk-chicks in a hat-box on top. She and I placed the osier cage aboard, securing it firmly, and then, throwing tablecloths over the auks’ heads, we led those simple and dignified birds down the path and across the plank at the little wooden pier. Together we locked up the house, while Halyard stormed at us both and wheeled himself furiously up and down the beach below. At the last moment she forgot her thimble. But we found it, I forget where.
“Come on!” shouted Halyard, waving his shawls furiously; “what the devil are you about up there?”
He received our explanation with a sniff, and we trundled him aboard without further ceremony.
“Don’t run me across the plank like a steamer trunk!” he shouted, as I shot him dexterously into the cock-pit. But the wind was dying away, and I had no time to dispute with him then.
The sun was setting above the pine-clad ridge as our sail flapped and partly filled, and I cast off, and began a long tack, east by south, to avoid the spouting rocks on our starboard bow.
The sea-birds rose in clouds as we swung across the shoal, the black surf-ducks scuttered out to sea, the gulls tossed their sun-tipped wings in the ocean, riding the rollers like bits of froth.
Already we were sailing slowly out across that great hole in the ocean, five miles deep, the most profound sounding ever taken in the Atlantic. The presence of great heights or great depths, seen or unseen, always impresses the human mind—perhaps oppresses it. We were very silent; the sunlight stain on cliff and beach deepened to crimson, then faded into sombre purple bloom that lingered long after the rose-tint died out in the zenith.
Our progress was slow; at times, although the sail filled with the rising land breeze, we scarcely seemed to move at all.
“Of course,” said the pretty nurse, “we couldn’t be aground in the deepest hole in the Atlantic.”
“Scarcely,” said Halyard, sarcastically, “unless we’re grounded on a whale.”
“What’s that soft thumping?” I asked. “Have we run afoul of a barrel or log?”
It was almost too dark to see, but I leaned over the rail and swept the water with my hand.
Instantly something smooth glided under it, like the back of a great fish, and I jerked my hand back to the tiller. At the same moment the whole surface of the water seemed to begin to purr, with a sound like the breaking of froth in a champagne-glass.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked Halyard, sharply.
“A fish came up under my hand,” I said; “a porpoise or something—”
With a low cry, the pretty nurse clasped my arm in both her hands.
“Listen!” she whispered. “It’s purring around the boat.”
“What the devil’s purring?” shouted Halyard. “I won’t have anything purring around me!”
At that moment, to my amazement, I saw that the boat had stopped entirely, although the sail was full and the small pennant fluttered from the mast-head. Something, too, was tugging at the rudder, twisting and jerking it until the tiller strained and creaked in my hand. All at once it snapped; the tiller swung useless and the boat whirled around, heeling in the stiffening wind, and drove shoreward.
It was then that I, ducking to escape the boom, caught a glimpse of something ahead—something that a sudden wave seemed to toss on deck and leave there, wet and flapping—a man with round, fixed, fishy eyes, and soft, slaty skin.
But the horror of the thing were the two gills that swelled and relaxed spasmodically, emitting a rasping, purring sound—two gasping, blood-red gills, all fluted and scolloped and distended.
Frozen with amazement and repugnance, I stared at the creature; I felt the hair stirring on my head and the icy sweat on my forehead.
“It’s the harbor-master!” screamed Halyard.
The harbor-master had gathered himself into a wet lump, squatting motionless in the bows under the mast; his lidless eyes were phosphorescent, like the eyes of living codfish. After a while I felt that either fright or disgust was going to strangle me where I sat, but it was only the arms of the pretty nurse clasped around me in a frenzy of terror.
There was not a fire-arm aboard that we could get at. Halyard’s hand crept backward where a steel-shod boat-hook lay, and I also made a clutch at it. The next moment I had it in my hand, and staggered forward, but the boat was already tumbling shoreward among the breakers, and the next I knew the harbor-master ran at me like a colossal rat, just as the boat rolled over and over through the surf, spilling freight and passengers among the sea-weed-covered rocks.
When I came to myself I was thrashing about knee-deep in a rocky pool, blinded by the water and half suffocated, while under my feet, like a stranded porpoise, the harbor-master made the water boil in his efforts to upset me. But his limbs seemed soft and boneless; he had no nails, no teeth, and he bounced and thumped and flapped and splashed like a fish, while I rained blows on him with the boat-hook that sounded like blows on a football. And all the while his gills were blowing out and frothing, and purring, and his lidless eyes looked into mine, until, nauseated and trembling, I dragged myself back to the beach, where already the pretty nurse alternately wrung her hands and her petticoats in ornamental despair.
Beyond the cove, Halyard was bobbing up and down, afloat in his invalid’s chair, trying to steer shoreward. He was the maddest man I ever saw.
“Have you killed that rubber-headed thing yet?” he roared.
“I can’t kill it,” I shouted, breathlessly. “I might as well try to kill a football!”
“Can’t you punch a hole in it?” he bawled. “If I can only get at him—”
His words were drowned in a thunderous splashing, a roar of great, broad flippers beating the sea, and I saw the gigantic forms of my two great auks, followed by their chicks, blundering past in a shower of spray, driving headlong out into the ocean.
“Oh, Lord!” I said. “I can’t stand that,” and, for the first time in my life, I fainted peacefully—and appropriately—at the feet of the pretty nurse.
It is within the range of possibility that this story may be doubted. It doesn’t matter; nothing can add to the despair of a man who has lost two great auks.
As for Halyard, nothing affects him—except his involuntary sea-bath, and that did him so much good that he writes me from the South that he’s going on a walking-tour through Switzerland—if I’ll join him. I might have joined him if he had not married the pretty nurse. I wonder whether—But, of course, this is no place for speculation.
In regard to the harbor-master, you may believe it or not, as you choose. But if you hear of any great auks being found, kindly throw a table-cloth over their heads and notify the authorities at the new Zoological Gardens in Bronx Park, New York. The reward is ten thousand dollars.
The post PseudoPod 632: The Harbour Master appeared first on PseudoPod.