Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XII.

Sea-God’s Prize

“What makes that ship drive on so fast.

What is the OCEAN doing?”

The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

The sailor paused, bleak eyes pale and vacant almost as a blind man’s. Again Mr. Crosby had appeared in the door-way.

“Black vessel with a red dolphin reported from Henlopen, sir. One of the lighthouse men was out in the bay hauling his lobster-traps, just missed being run under.

“Cape Henlopen! Worse and more of it. How long ago did your lobster-fishing lighthouse man have his bloomin’ dream?”

“Nearly two hours, sir.”

“Fine!” Porter nodded sarcastic approval. “Red dolphin made Bombay Hook in ten minutes, and Cape Henlopen three minutes later. Great old clipper. Mr. Crosby, see to it, please, that our own lookouts stay awake. Our craft is somewhere on the river not far ahead, unless we’ve passed her.

“The fog has thinned a bit, sir. I’m nearly sure we haven’t passed any craft, near her tonnage in the channel.”

“Isn’t it possible,” suggested Vanaman, “that the ship we are after has anchored somewhere close to shore? The men might have deserted her and taken their prisoners to land.”

Porter’s broad shoulders shrugged.

“Possible, of course. But if they meant to do that, why use a ship at all? No, I believe Friend Dolphin has figured on the fog to prevent pursuit or interference, and is making for open sea. Once outside she may have arranged a rendezvous with some other craft, intends to transship her prisoners, and sail off, innocent as you please, with no evidence aboard to convict her.

“That is, if they have any object such as ransom in keeping Mr. Robinson prisoner. If they are only after this green box you talk of, they may carry him what they consider a safe distance up or down the coast and then put him and his niece ashore. We might be able to guess their intentions better if we knew a trifle more about ’em. Get ahead with that yarn you’re spinning, Blair. And make the rest of it pretty bloomin’ short and to the point.”

“I’ll try, though there really ain’t any hurry, sir. Yer might as well try to overhaul the Flyin’ Dutchman as that craft with the red dolphin.”

Aboard the Portsmouth Belle again, Blair had stowed away the block of green lava and thought no more of it for a while. That night he dreamed of “Belle Island,” as Captain Jessamy had named the risen bit of old sea-bottom; but the dream, though unusually vivid, he had laid to the restless slumber that had been induced by the heat.

Next day he occupied his leisure time in chiseling and rubbing down the block of lava, and finally induced the ship’s carpenter to lend him a saw with which he proceeded to divide the comparatively soft material into two parts. Having sawed into it a bare quarter-inch a fragment of the lava broke away, disclosing what he at first took for a quartz-crystal nucleus in the block. Easily breaking away the remainder of the outer crust, he found, enclosed as in a cyst of the volcanic material, the green casket itself.

He was alone in the forecastle, and his first instinct was to conceal the find. To a man of Blair’s limited education and mental attainments the extraordinary quality of his discovery appealed scarcely at all. To him, the disclosure of a probable relic of remote antiquity meant no more than if, walking along a city street, he had stumbled across a wrapped package, opened it, and found a jewel casket.

The interest was wholly in the casket’s possible value to himself. Speculation as to its previous possessors was beside the mark; and his ignorance saw nothing miraculous in the object’s perfect preservation through the volcanic heat which, rising to a possible two thousand or so degrees Centigrade, will melt the hardest rock and reduce metals to their gaseous form.

Failing to open the casket easily, and hearing one of his mates descending the forecastle ladder, he hastily concealed it in his bunk, complained to his fellow seaman that the lava block had crumbled to bits under the saw, and carrying the fragments on deck, flung them overboard. His chief concern at this time seems to have been lest Captain Jessamy learn of the casket’s existence and take it from him.

Ere he could make further secret effort toward opening the box, a gale arose and the ship was soon discovered to be taking in water at an alarming rate. It was presumed that her seams had opened, due to the severe wrenching suffered in meeting the seismic wave and the tornado that succeeded it.

“They didn’t know about him,” grinned Blair, vacant-eyed. “And neither did I— yet. He was just waking up to notice that I’d stole what he meant to keep. He’s kind of lazy and sleepy, I guess, sometimes. Like of them big snakes you’ll see in the jungles south of Cancer. It’ll feed full and then lay in the sun and doze and dream fer days, maybe, or maybe months. Just so, him. He was trying already to get back his own, but only half-trying. He’d lift up his big, lazy waves and slap at the old Portsmouth Belle. And she’d shiver and writhe and her seams would open a bit; kept all hands at the pumps in two-hour shifts till our hands was like red meat and our backs like to break. But he wasn’t really awake yet, nor half-trying.”

“Dr. Vanaman,” broke in Porter brusquely, “is it worth while —”

“I wish to hear this story exactly as he is telling it.”

There was a quiet, dogged determination in the doctor’s voice which again silenced Porter for a time. After all, till they ran down Red Dolphin, little could be done but wait. As well listen to Blair’s wanderings as stand about idle.

The Portsmouth Belle, continued Blair, had long since passed beyond the ash-infested area. As in her leaky condition more danger would have been involved by the strain of lying-to than letting her run, the ship had been put before the wind, double reefed, and was driven along in a practically sinking condition till she encountered the Taconia, an oil-tanker bound in ballast for Tremont.

Salvage of the Portsmouth Belle was not attempted, but the Taconia’s commander released the small quantity of petroleum oil which remained in the tanks, thereby so smoothing the rough waters in his immediate vicinity that it was possible to transship the old square-rigger’s officers and crew to the tanker.

Thereafter the Taconia suffered a peculiarly stormy and difficult passage, but at length made port at Tremont, up the Delaware.

“He ain’t so sure of himself, I reckon, in dealin’ with steel ships, and steam, and oil like they turned loose on him to get us aboard the tanker. Or else, as I says before, he wasn’t half-waked up yet. Anyways, we was landed safe at Tremont, like I says. The other fellers had began to fight shy o’ me, though. Reckon I’d say a thing now and then they couldn’t figger out the sense of. Captain Jessamy paid us all off square, like we’d made the full voyage we shipped fer. I will say them British lime-juicers treats yer white. The officer fellers all scattered, some shippin’ again from Tremont, some drifting over to New York. But me, I stays where I landed, bein’ more or less scared, and not quite knowin’ what to do.”

“Why were you frightened?” queried Vanaman, though he knew the answer.

“Dreams,” said Blair. “Just dreams. Sounds a triflin’ matter to scare a knockabout feller like me that’s sailed here and there pretty nigh all over the world, lived hard, and been treated rough. But there’s dreams yer can forget, and others yer can’t, and the kind that was comin’ to me had a trick o’ carryin’ over into hours when I was awake.

“I seen things I dassn’t tell of; and I’ve walked the streets of Tremont when the walls of the ten red cities seemed crashin’ all about me. I’ve stood on the docks by the river and seen the river spread and stretch out wide — wide and purple-blue, like the seas is way south. And I’ve seen his white horses come in, with the blood streamin’ free from their throats. And I’ve seen — him — stalkin’ across the waters.”

The man dropped his face in his thin hands, and fell suddenly silent.

“Blair,” said the doctor patiently, “I am following your story with full attention and belief. Understand that. But so far, except that you have told us where you found the box, I have learned practically nothing. Are you willing to answer a few questions?”

“Ask ahead, sir.”

“Then, first, what did you tell Mr. Robinson that night when you visited him in his study?”

“Oh, that. Why I told him all I’ve told you and a bit more. I begins by explainin’ to him that I’d made a big mistake sellin’ the thing to that there dealer, Jacob Lutz. Yer see, when the dreams got too bad and I feels sure it’s the box is bringin’ ’em on me, I decides the best way is to get rid of it.

“He’s been tellin’ me he must have it back; but me, I reckons it’s mine to sell, and the curse of it can pass to the man that buys. I’d tried to get it open and couldn’t; and I didn’t dasst break it.

“So I takes it to this feller Lutz and strings him with a yarn about how it had been stole from a temple in China, thinkin’ he’d pay more fer it than if I let on I’d picked it up off a bare rock, where it was lyin’ loose fer the first comer. He only give me three dollars at that, but I takes it fer reasons of my own and walks out of his shop, thinkin’ myself a free man. Free! I’d oughter knowed better than traffic that way with his property. He come to me — he come that night — different —”

The sailor seemed to choke on the words and again covered his face.

“I think I understand,” assured Vanaman gently. “Captain Porter, this man is sane, but he is speaking of a matter so far beyond my own comprehensions that I can’t even attempt to explain it to you now. Let me talk it out with him, and if we appear to talk like madmen, have patience.”

“I’m having it,” Porter retorted rather grimly.

“Go on, Blair. You decided you must recover the box? Was that it?”

Blair drew a long breath and nodded.

“I went to Lutz and managed to dig old Robinson’s address out of him by lettin’ on I could tell his customer what the red inscription means. I dunno what it means. Unless it’s his autygraft, wrote on the bottom to show who it belongs to. I didn’t blow in on Robinson till near midnight, because I’d been havin’ another bad spell with them wakin’, walkin’ dreams of red cities and the like. I tells Robinson fair what I’d been told in them dreams. How the box was buried ten — twenty thousand years ago; I dunno just how long, but before even the Bible was wrote. And how inside of it is big secrets — secrets he told to the rulers of the ten red cities. And how, me havin’ stole it accidental-like, not knowin’ who it belonged to, he’s willin’ I should give it back peaceable and no more trouble for me. And I offers Robinson the three dollars Lutz gimme fer it.

“Robinson sits there and laughs. Thinks I’m crazy, maybe. But he don’t laugh long because — because the air begins to turn cold and damp and — and in at the door —”

The doctor interposed hastily, “Never mind describing that, Blair. I’ve been through it myself sufficient times.”

“Well, Robinson has the box, and seein’ as how he’s come after it in person like, I don’t think I’m needed any more around there. I jumps fer the winder, the door bein’ occupied, slips and pulls down something that breaks with an awful crash. I come up with a chair in my grip, smashes at the winder, and jumps.

“That’s the last I seen of Robinson fer three days, me not bein’ interested to go round to his place inquirin’, and the dreams lettin’ up a bit, so I thinks, maybe I’m rid of my troubles fer good. Then I meets Robinson on the street. He’s in his autymobile, and he calls me over and says he knows as much as me now. That I was right about him, but was a fool and quitter ter give in to him. Old Robinson says to me: ‘What I want I get, and what I get I keep. That’s why I’m ridin’ round in this here car while you and your weak, quittin’ kind trudge it barefoot. There ain’t nothin’ can scare me. And as fer takin’ the box from me, he can’t do it. How do I know? ‘Cause he’s been tryin’ almighty hard, and ain’t done it. I aim to keep the box, ‘cause I bought it and it’s mine. Maybe I’ll open it some day. Good-by, Blair. Remember, quitters is losers!’ And he druv off, laughing.

“After that the dreams came back worse than before, and I figure maybe I can steal the box and give it back to him. I hangs around, but not bein’ bred nor trained a cracksman I don’t know just how to go about it. Then I reads as how Lutz bought him a white horse and then killed himself instead of it. I knowed right away why he done it. So I tries the same stunt, thinkin’ it might pacify him.

“It didn’t do no good-no good at all. And my last five dollars was gone. I ain’t et a thing in two days, sirs. I was hangin’ around by the docks, thinkin’ maybe I’d best end it like Lutz did, when old Robinson druv out on the wharf, where I was, in his car. I heered everything that passed. I dunno exactly why, but hearin’ that tall feller talk I suspicioned what was in the wind.

“I might have spoke and warned old Robinson, I suppose. But somehow it seemed to me he had this comin’ to him. Braggin’ on how what he gets he keeps, and laughin’ me out fer a quitter! And besides — now he’s got the box back, maybe he’ll let up on me.”

“Blair, I ask you again, and this time I wish a straight, definite answer; who is he?”

The man’s lips twitched nervously. His vacant gaze wandered from the doctor’s face to Porter’s, then fixed on the open doorway.

“Dr. Vanaman, sir, he has a lot of different names. He told me all of ’em, sir, and cursed me by each one. I’ll tell yer the name they called him by in the ten red cities, but I don’t just like ter say it out loud. He might hear, and think we was callin’ him.”

Going close to the doctor, where he was seated by the chart-table, Blair bent and whispered a single word in his ear. Vanaman’s expression of patient if strained attention did not change.

“I thought so,” he nodded. “And when Lutz spoke of an archangel —”

“That’s the name Lutz would choose to call him, sir, him bein’ a Jew.”

“The ‘archangel of the abyss.’ Yes, I believe he is referred to by that name somewhere in the Old Testament. Queer — still, the idea of such a being might be translated under the name most familiar to the mind that received it. Now am I right, Blair, when I say that neither you nor Mr. Robinson nor Jacob Lutz had any knowledge of the nature of the past history of the green box except what you learned through dreams?”

“That’s right, sir.”

“And you have never been touched — never been physically harmed by any of the appearances you have seen in connection with it?”

“No, but —”

“Just a minute. What I am getting at is this. Until to-night, at least, every remarkable occurrence in connection with the green box has been of an hallucinatory character.

“That is, these five people — you and Lutz and Mr. Robinson, and Miss Robinson and myself — yes, and my aunt, too; that’s six — six of us have seen certain visions or illusions similar to those which a man might witness in delirium or insanity. The fact that all six of us have seen practically the same illusions makes it impossible to attribute them to mental aberration. The fact that none of us, so far as known, has suffered physical harm —”

“That man Lutz —”

“Was frightened into real madness. Lutz was not injured by an outside force. He took his own life. I say, the fact that none of us has been physically touched or harmed proves to my mind, at least, that behind those visions is no living, dreadful being seeking to reclaim the box as you fancy. On the other hand, the fact that we have all seen the same visions proves that behind them in a real, active agency of some kind.

“Now, and particularly since hearing your story, I believe the green box, which was cast up from the abyss is a memento of perhaps the most awe-inspiring event in the world’s long life. In ancient days, before our written history began, there lay another continent between Europe and the two Americas. The Azores Islands are generally conceded to be crests of its submerged mountains. Through tradition, not history, its name has come down to us as Atlantis. There have been suppositions that the great Deluge recorded by the Hebrews, the Chaldeans, the Greeks, and in fact by the traditions of nations all the world, including North and South America, refers to the destruction of Atlantis by earthquake, volcano, and flood.

“If we may at all trust the Greco–Egyptian legend as written by Plato, Atlantis was the center of very high civilization and its people may well have been the possessors of many arts and inventions whose secret was lost when the land perished. Also, they were worshippers of Poseidon, the sea god, who was supposed to have founded their government.

“Now, Blair, the vast, terrible being who haunts you is nothing — nothing, do you understand? Or rather, he is only a thought and idea — relic of an ancient religion dead long ago and revived in your mind by your temporary ownership of an object once surrounded by myriads of people who held the same belief. Those people are dead, as you say, these many thousand years. But the thing you found still radiates their ideas as thought-waves, reproduced much, as sound-waves are.

“That is my honest belief in respect to the green box, Blair. That enshrined in it is a secret, indeed — a secret of the ancient peoples, who were wiped from the earth when the cities of Atlantis fell before earthquake and flood. The secret which our modern science has groped for, but not yet found — a device for recording and reproducing thought vibrations.”

Porter’s brows were knit in a frown of perhaps excusable bewilderment, and as Blair’s blank eyes met the doctor’s the latter realized that his ingenious theorizing had been intelligently followed by no one save himself. Still, that he had evolved an explanation on material grounds to satisfy even himself meant a great deal to Dr. Vanaman just then. He hurried on:

“What happened to-night — the abduction, I mean — can’t be properly explained till we catch the abductors. I am absolutely sure, however, that they will prove mere human beings like ourselves, and it may even be that the kidnappers knew nothing about the green box. Mr. Robinson has many enemies. He himself has confided that fact to me. He may have been kidnapped for ransom or in connection with some affair of which we are ignorant. Captain Porter, this man Blair is on the verge of collapse from privation. In common humanity, will you see that —”

“Message from the U. S. Destroyer Shelby, Sir.” A third time Mr. Crosby’s form blocked the doorway. He wore an expression of almost pleased anticipation, as if interested to observe his superior officer’s probable reaction to the latest news. “Near three hours ago the Shelby just missed collision with a big, black-painted sailing craft of some sort that tore by the Shelby’s nose like the devil was behind her. Commander Jansen reports that he was on deck at the time and had a good view of her bow, with a big, bright-red dolphin curving out from it instead of a bowsprit. Says she was sail-rigged as near as he could make out, but with no canvas set, and going it under auxiliary power alone.

“The Shelby hailed, and tried to overhaul her. She was cruising without a glimmer of light, or a fog-gong or siren in action. Commander Jansen thought he’d like to speak a gentle word or so to her master. They lost her in the fog, though. That happened about five miles off Cape May.”

“And three hours ago!” Captain Porter’s large fist smote the chart-table a resounding smash. “Mr. Crosby, I don’t know what we are chasing! I’ve sat here listening to a yarn I can’t make head or tail of till what with that and these crazy reports coming in it’s all beginning to seem like a dream, and a bloomin’ nightmare at that. I don’t know if Red Dolphin is the Flying Dutchman or the devil’s own private yacht; but whatever she is, I do know she’s got my charterer aboard. And before the Lord, we’ll hold on her trail so long as there’s even a dream of a trail to hold!”

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Last updated Wednesday, March 5, 2014 at 22:30