Claimed!, by Francis Stevens

Chapter XI.

James Blair, A.b.

Captain “Tom” Porter, well known and liked among the blunt, outspoken fraternity of his own kind, had found cause for melancholy in the sudden change of charterers which made the sturdy old Nagaina a pleasure craft and demanded of himself the graces and, as he chose to take it, servility of a yacht-captain. Discovering, however, that scoundrels unknown had illicitly borrowed his identity and that of his ship and thereby wrested his despised charter from him, Captain Porter’s viewpoint toward the latter abruptly changed. Had there been stolen from him some prized and long-treasured possession, the captain could have been no more personally outraged and indignant.

Jesse J. Robinson was his — his charterer! And the captain’s ideas of property rights seemed well on a par with Robinson’s own.

Mr. Crosby suggested that before attempting to quarter the river on their own account, the harbor police be notified. The captain swore and ordered him to put back for the Nagaina instantly.

“We can wire the police, and wireless every ship and station down the river. Nobody but a criminal or a fool will be moving in this weather. It’s safe to demand that any craft that is moving is to be held up. We don’t know exactly what her bloomin’ type is, but she wears sail and she’s medium big one, by the cut of her bow and forerigging.”

“What’s that?” cut in Vanaman. “What do you know of her rigging? I saw nothing but the small boat.”

“And we saw that and more, too,” was Porter’s unexpected retort. “Matter of fact, we passed your bloomin’ kidnappers just at the identical moment when they were hoisting their tender aboard. Mr. Crosby there, not knowing any vessel was berthed near the Nagaina, all but fouled their bow in the fog. How they got to lay to so near without our knowing it is past me. There wasn’t a bloomin’ sign of a vessel anchored anywhere around the Nagaina when the fog shut down.

“First we knew of her, there was her dolphin figurehead right on top of us. I yelled, and Mr. Crosby sheered off and just missed fouling her cable at that. It was hove up short, all ready for a quick getaway, as I know now. As we turned I saw the lines of her rigging sharp and black for just a minute against her riding lights. And I saw and heard them hoisting their tender in over the port bulwark. Then the fog shut in thick, and I didn’t see any more, but if that wasn’t your kidnappers, call me a Dutchman and be done.

“Of course, they have auxiliary power or they couldn’t go down-river without a tug, fog or no fog. But she’s a sailing-craft of some sort, painted black, with a red dolphin for her figurehead and a funny kind of swell-out and curve back cut to her stern that I never saw on any other boat. She’ll be easy enough to identify, once caught.”

“How do you know this vessel you describe isn’t still anchored where you saw her?”

“I bloomin’ well know it! If she’s there she’s at the bottom, and we just now cruised by over her. Mr. Crosby, I make the Nagaina a half-point up from this course.”

“Half-point it is, sir,” muttered his second, and the wheel-spokes shifted a trifle under his hands.

Vanaman realized that by instinct or knowledge almost uncanny to a landsman the captain was sure of his position on the fog-blanketed river as if the time had been high noon, with a clear sun shining.

“By the way,” continued Porter, “who’s the party you’re clingin’ to with so much affection? One of the kidnapper’s gang?”

Vanaman glanced at the dilapidated figure which drooped dispirited and silent beside him.

“I think possibly he is, though I’m not certain. Tell you all about it later, captain. This is the Nagaina, isn’t it?”

A black, wall-like expanse had loomed above them, and a minute later Vanaman was ascending the ladder with an agility lent him by the keenest anxiety. Blair followed without protest, and Captain Porter was no sooner on deck than he sent one of his men to rout out the wireless-operator and another for his chief engineer.

Before the fog drifted in on her, the Nagaina had been expected to clear that night. The pilot was aboard, and the fires were still banked under her boilers. The engineer promised steam within the half-hour, and the pilot, though not without considerable protest, finally consented to do his best toward conning the Nagaina downstream.

“Though if she rams her nose in a mud bank don’t blame me,” he added gloomily. “I’m no X-ray artist to keep the channel in this weather.”

“The bloomin’ weather wasn’t too thick for that other craft.”

“No, and she’s very likely hung up on a bar this minute, waiting for your fool boat to ram in beside her.”

“I don’t ask anything better,” retorted Porter, and there was a certain grim and anticipatory pleasure in his tone. The Nagaina’s master was rather like the stout old steamer he commanded: a fighter born.

Till urgent messages had been sent to the Tremont harbor police and other stations both up and down the river, neither the captain nor Vanaman cared to take time for explanation on the latter’s part. The bare facts of the abduction with what description they could give of the suspected vessel, were sufficient to set the forces of the law in motion. They also brought a police boat nosing through the fog in search of the Nagaina’s berth, though by the time it arrived there the berth was empty and the Nagaina cautiously feeling her way down-channel.

By wireless, however, she remained in touch with the shore stations, and there was a bare chance that she might overhaul the black, dolphin-headed stranger even before the latter could be intercepted by the authorities. The hoarse hooting of her siren rang out belligerently. She snorted and puffed like a large, canary sea-beast, her propellers half the time in reverse as she fought against being carried along with too dangerous a speed by the racing current. She was clumsy and noisy, the Nagaina, but very honest and resolute.

The pilot had taken the bridge, and not being needed there Porter found time at last to question Vanaman more fully. With that mysteriously recrudescent individual, Jim Blair, still in tow, the doctor accompanied Porter into the privacy of the chart-house and there laid before him exactly as much as he deemed fit of events leading up to the abduction.

On the stranger side of the affair he touched not at all, merely stating that Mr. Robinson had in his possession a certain casket, of contents unknown to him, Vanaman; that Mr. Robinson had many times referred to some person or persons, also unknown, who wished to deprive him of the said possession; that Mr. Robinson had the casket with him when abducted; and that the simplest assumption seemed to be that the abductors and the supposititious claimers of Mr. Robinson’s property were identical.

As he talked, it occurred to Vanaman that he was probably telling the truth.

Since the moment when he found himself left at the wharf, and his brain had cleared of that obsessing stupor, all the supernormal quality of the affair had seemed to grow steadily more questionable, fading to unreality like the uncertain memory of a dream — illusion — hallucination; three words that cover a multitude of otherwise inexplicable phenomena.

Certainly the abductors of Robinson and his niece had been no empty phantoms, but flesh-and-blood men. His arm still ached faintly where the tall captain had gripped it. The boat in which Leilah and her uncle were carried off — that was most assuredly a real boat. Captain Porter had seen the real ship to which it returned. And in good earnest, looking backward, old Robinson might from many of his remarks have been on guard against enemies far more human and credible than the vague, monstrous thing whose apparition haunted the green box.

In fact, what is generally termed “natural common sense” informed the doctor very positively that while he and several other people had been to a certain extent victimized by singular illusion, to-night’s event was — must be — of another order and belonging to the category of purely human and material activities.

Presently Mr. Crosby appeared in the open doorway of the chart-house.

“Black craft with a red dolphin figurehead sighted at Bombay Hook little over an hour ago, sir,” he announced cheerfully. “Reported by the tug Jersey Queen. We just now got in touch with her.”

“Bombay Hook? Over an hour ago?” repeated Porter sharply. “The Jersey Queen’s dreaming! Or else there are two red dolphins cruising ahead of us. Our boat can’t have made Bombay Hook even yet, much less an hour ago. It’s rank impossible.”

That lean wreck of a man, Jim Blair, seemed to rouse a trifle.

“Beg pardon, sir,” he interposed. “If yer knew him yer wouldn’t talk of nothing being impossible. That’s his ship, sir, with the dolphin to her bow. And she’s went down fast, of course, with the outflowing tide.”

Porter stared and the sailor stared back composedly; but there was a look in his pale, bleak eyes that after a moment made the captain glance toward Vanaman with a questioning lift of the brows, while his lips silently formed a word. The doctor shook his head.

“I’m not sure,” he murmured; then aloud: “Blair, whom do you mean when you speak of ‘him’?”

The sailor’s mouth widened in a sneering, almost foolish grin.

“If yer don’t know already, Dr. Vanaman, yer better off not to.”

“But I wish — I demand to know!” All the uncertainty, the unnatural fears and the maddening doubts that had made the last few days an unremitting torment surged up as one great, urgent question. “Blair,” he continued tensely, “you are going to tell me every single thing you know about this cursed business, and you are going to tell it now — quick!”

“I ain’t got any objection,” conceded the sailor, unexpectedly pliable. “Fer a fact, I’d rather like to get it off my chest. But I warns yer fair, doctor, yer sittin’ in a dangerous game if yer listens.”

“Tell the truth, my man,” put in Porter sternly. “You admit that you know something of the gang who have made off with Mr. Robinson and his niece. That admission alone is enough to jail you. Tell the full truth, and in return we’ll do what we can to save you from the law.”

The sailor flung back to his head and laughed, a wild peal of merriment with an eldritch note in it that sent a shiver or so down Porter’s back. “Law!” Blair gasped presently. “Law-man’s law — to deal with him, and with me that’s marked fer his! Wait! I knows yer don’t mean to be funny. It’s only that yer don’t understand. I’ll tell it all straight from the beginning, and whiles I talks yer can listen, and while yer listens we’ll all go down the river with the outflowing tide-down the river to him!”

That story which Blair the sailor related standing in the yellow-lighted chart-room, hazy with fog, was a wild, long tale; too long and in many parts too incoherent for a verbatim report of it to be rendered here. Many times Porter, incredulous and increasingly suspicious of the fellow’s sanity, would have cut him short; but Vanaman would not have that.

Porter had never sat and watched the sea-tide sweep in, frothing and impossible, miles away from the coast; had never seen phantom waters swirl and mass themselves and give birth to dark terror’s self. No matter how mad and wild the tale in its texture might be, so must be the facts to explain a mystery fully as wild and mad.

The very beginning of the story, however, sounded sane enough. Early in the previous spring James Blair, A.B., had shipped at Liverpool in the old square-rigged merchant-vessel, Portsmouth Belle, bound with a mixed cargo for British Guiana. Two weeks out the ship encountered a dead calm with heavy, lowering weather, and a few hours later was swept toward the very clouds, as it seemed to Blair, on the crest of an enormous wave, which was in turn succeeded by two lesser ones.

“That’s probably true enough,” commented Porter. “Lisbon reported a moderate-sized tidal wave last May. Did some damage to shipping in waters north and east of the Azores, too.”

The Portsmouth Belle, continued Blair, survived the greater wave and its followers, and also laid to under storm staysails, outlived the tornadolike gale which ensued. When the wind somewhat lessened, its direction being N-N.E., the ship was allowed to run before it, and very soon thereafter was found to be scudding through a sea whose billows were curiously flattened and without foam or crests. The water, in fact, proved to be heavy with a grayish, ashlike substance, and being in the first mate’s watch, Blair learned from him that the substance was indeed ash and cinders of volcanic origin.

The wind died still further, the sea became practically flat, and the Portsmouth Belle for a long time forced her way with great difficulty through this scum of ash, which by test was in many places found to be over a foot thick. The sky was continually overcast, the heat well-nigh unendurable, and a whisper went about the ship that the navigating officers were, to use Blair’s phrase, “going it blind,” due to some magnetic injury to the compasses. Spotting no other vessels, and being unsupplied with wireless, their exact position through these days was extremely uncertain.

May 17, when Blair understood they should have sighted the low peak of Corzo in the Azores, they were still surrounded by an unbroken horizon of sickly gray, the sea being dotted at one point, however, by a short, low bar of black which roved on closer approach to be a small island. Mr. Kersarge, the first mate, informed Blair that this was in all probability new land, flung up by the submarine earthquake and eruption which had caused the tidal, or more properly speaking, the seismic wave.

Captain Jessamy elected to go shore here, and Blair was one of the party of five seamen who accompanied him.

Rowing in that ash-encrusted sea was like propelling a boat through thick, half frozen slush, and the journey of, say, a half thousand yards required over an hour of strenuous exertion. They arrived at last, however, and Captain Jessamy was first to set foot on the strange bit of vapor-steaming rock extruded by the convulsive forces at work below.

Blair was the only one to follow him, and for an excellent reason. The other four seamen were all barefooted; but Blair, “tipped off,” as he phrased it, by the mate, had brought along a pair of shore-boots. The rock was still hot enough to preclude any comfort in walking about, even for a man shod in heavy leather, and with naked feet the adventure became one of downright torture.

“And me,” said Blair, “bringin’ them boots along just to walk myself straight through the gates of hell! I wisht the old man had died before he ever seen that island! I wisht Mr. Kersarge had died before he ever tipped me off to take them boots along! I wisht —”

“That will do, my man,” Porter cut in coldly. “Cursing your officers will not finish this long-winded yarn you’re spinning. Anyway, I fail to see how a volcanic island near the Azores can bear on the kidnapping of a bloomin’ millionaire down the Delaware.”

“Yer will see, sir. But if yer don’t want to hear it, I’ll lay off.”

“Let him finish, Captain Porter — please,” intervened the doctor. “Get ahead, Blair, and make it as short as you can to save time.”

“I will, sir, though it seems funny to talk of savin’ time when yer tellin’ of his doings. What’s time to him? Why a matter of twenty thousand year or so ain’t no more to him than five minutes is to you and me. Time! All right, sir; I’ll get under way again.”

Near the center of the island, from which Captain Jessamy kept a safe distance, fearing poisonous vapors, were some masses of brilliantly scarlet rock, in form and juxtaposition vaguely suggesting the shapes of ruined buildings.

“Scarlet?” repeated the doctor.

“Red,” said the sailor. “Red as new blood that’s just been shed; red as the writin’ that lays across what he’s took again for his own; red as the ten red cities — ah, yer has seen a thing or two fer yer own self, doctor, ain’t yer?”

“Never mind what I may have seen. Get on with your story.”

“Oh, I’m tellin’ yer fast enough. It was while the old man — beg pardon, Captain Porter, sir; I mean Captain Jessamy — it was while he was peerin’ at them old red walls through his binoculars that I first seen it. There was chunks and roundish balls of lava layin’ all about in the wet ash. Black they was mostly, with dull red specks. This here was different. It was green — bright green, like grass almost; grass that blood has been sprinkled over in pretty little shiny red drops. And it were shaped real regular, almost like a box.

“‘Captain Jessamy, sir,’ says I, ‘can I carry this here along when we goes? I could hollow it out to a box like, and maybe sell it ashore.’ And the old man, he laughs and says: ‘Sure. Help yerself to anything you find on this land, Blair. I reckon nobody won’t come around claimin’ no property your removes from here.’

“Just like that. He reckoned nobody would be wanting or claiming it from me. So I wraps it up in my shirt, because it’s too hot to hold, and just like that I walks straight through the gates of hell, sirs.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00