Wednesday, 15 January 2014

The Yellow Cat by Wilbur Daniel Steele

At least once in my life I have had the good fortune to board a deserted
vessel at sea. I say "good fortune" because it has left me the memory of
a singular impression. I have felt a ghost of the same thing two or
three times since then, when peeping through the doorway of an abandoned
Now that vessel was not dead. She was a good vessel, a sound vessel,
even a handsome vessel, in her blunt-bowed, coastwise way. She sailed
under four lowers across as blue and glittering a sea as I have ever
known, and there was not a point in her sailing that one could lay a
finger upon as wrong. And yet, passing that schooner at two miles, one
knew, somehow, that no hand was on her wheel. Sometimes I can imagine a
vessel, stricken like that, moving over the empty spaces of the sea,
carrying it off quite well were it not for that indefinable suggestion
of a stagger; and I can think of all those ocean gods, in whom no
landsman will ever believe, looking at one another and tapping their
foreheads with just the shadow of a smile.
I wonder if they all scream--these ships that have lost their souls?
Mine screamed. We heard her voice, like nothing I have ever heard
before, when we rowed under her counter to read her name--the
_Marionnette_ it was, of Halifax. I remember how it made me shiver,
there in the full blaze of the sun, to hear her going on so, railing and
screaming in that stark fashion. And I remember, too, how our footsteps,
pattering through the vacant internals in search of that haggard
utterance, made me think of the footsteps of hurrying warders roused in
the night.
And we found a parrot in a cage; that was all. It wanted water. We gave
it water and went away to look things over, keeping pretty close
together, all of us. In the quarters the table was set for four. Two men
had begun to eat, by the evidences of the plates. Nowhere in the vessel
was there any sign of disorder, except one sea-chest broken out,
evidently in haste. Her papers were gone and the stern davits were
empty. That is how the case stood that day, and that is how it has stood
to this. I saw this same _Marionnette_ a week later, tied up to a
Hoboken dock, where she awaited news from her owners; but even there, in
the midst of all the water-front bustle, I could not get rid of the
feeling that she was still very far away--in a sort of shippish
The thing happens now and then. Sometimes half a dozen years will go by
without a solitary wanderer of this sort crossing the ocean paths, and
then in a single season perhaps several of them will turn up: vacant
waifs, impassive and mysterious--a quarter-column of tidings tucked away
on the second page of the evening paper.
That is where I read the story about the _Abbie Rose_. I recollect how
painfully awkward and out-of-place it looked there, cramped between
ruled black edges and smelling of landsman's ink--this thing that had to
do essentially with air and vast coloured spaces. I forget the exact
words of the heading--something like "Abandoned Craft Picked Up At
Sea"--but I still have the clipping itself, couched in the formal patter
of the marine-news writer:
     The first hint of another mystery of the sea came in to-day
     when the schooner _Abbie Rose_ dropped anchor in the upper
     river, manned only by a crew of one. It appears that the
     outbound freighter _Mercury_ sighted the _Abbie Rose_ off
     Block Island on Thursday last, acting in a suspicious
     manner. A boat-party sent aboard found the schooner in
     perfect order and condition, sailing under four lower sails,
     the topsails being pursed up to the mastheads but not
     stowed. With the exception of a yellow cat, the vessel was
     found to be utterly deserted, though her small boat still
     hung in the davits. No evidences of disorder were visible in
     any part of the craft. The dishes were washed up, the stove
     in the galley was still slightly warm to the touch,
     everything in its proper place with the exception of the
     vessel's papers, which were not to be found.
     All indications being for fair weather, Captain Rohmer of
     the _Mercury_ detailed two of his company to bring the find
     back to this port, a distance of one hundred and fifteen
     miles. The only man available with a knowledge of the
     fore-and-aft rig was Stewart McCord, the second engineer. A
     seaman by the name of Björnsen was sent with him. McCord
     arrived this noon, after a very heavy voyage of five days,
     reporting that Björnsen had fallen overboard while shaking
     out the foretopsail. McCord himself showed evidence of the
     hardships he has passed through, being almost a nervous
Stewart McCord! Yes, Stewart McCord would have a knowledge of the
fore-and-aft rig, or of almost anything else connected with the affairs
of the sea. It happened that I used to know this fellow. I had even been
quite chummy with him in the old days--that is, to the extent of
drinking too many beers with him in certain hot-country ports. I
remembered him as a stolid and deliberate sort of a person, with an
amazing hodgepodge of learning, a stamp collection, and a theory about
the effects of tropical sunshine on the Caucasian race, to which I have
listened half of more than one night, stretched out naked on a
freighter's deck. He had not impressed me as a fellow who would be
bothered by his nerves.
And there was another thing about the story which struck me as rather
queer. Perhaps it is a relic of my seafaring days, but I have always
been a conscientious reader of the weather reports; and I could remember
no weather in the past week sufficient to shake a man out of a top,
especially a man by the name of Björnsen--a thoroughgoing seafaring
I was destined to hear more of this in the evening, from the ancient
boatman who rowed me out on the upper river. He had been to sea in his
day. He knew enough to wonder about this thing, even to indulge in a
little superstitious awe about it.
"No sir-ee. Something _happened_ to them four chaps. And another
I fancied I heard a sea-bird whining in the darkness overhead. A shape
moved out of the gloom ahead, passed to the left, lofty and silent, and
merged once more with the gloom behind--a barge at anchor, with the
sea-grass clinging around her water-line.
"Funny about that other chap," the old fellow speculated. "Björnsen--I
b'lieve he called 'im. Now that story sounds to me kind of--" He
feathered his oars with a suspicious jerk and peered at me. "This McCord
a friend of yourn?" he inquired.
"In a way," I said.
"Hm-m--well--" He turned on his thwart to squint ahead. "There she is,"
he announced, with something of relief, I thought.
It was hard at that time of night to make anything but a black blotch
out of the _Abbie Rose_. Of course I could see that she was pot-bellied,
like the rest of the coastwise sisterhood. And that McCord had not
stowed his topsails. I could make them out, pursed at the mastheads and
hanging down as far as the cross-trees, like huge, over-ripe pears.
Then I recollected that he had found them so--probably had not touched
them since; a queer way to leave tops, it seemed to me. I could see also
the glowing tip of a cigar floating restlessly along the farther rail. I
called: "McCord! Oh, McCord!"
The spark came swimming across the deck. "Hello! Hello, there--ah--"
There was a note of querulous uneasiness there that somehow jarred with
my remembrance of this man.
"Ridgeway," I explained.
He echoed the name uncertainly, still with that suggestion of
peevishness, hanging over the rail and peering down at us. "Oh! By
gracious!" he exclaimed, abruptly. "I'm glad to see you, Ridgeway. I had
a boatman coming out before this, but I guess--well, I guess he'll be
along. By gracious! I'm glad--"
"I'll not keep you," I told the gnome, putting the money in his palm and
reaching for the rail. McCord lent me a hand on my wrist. Then when I
stood squarely on the deck beside him he appeared to forget my presence,
leaned forward heavily on the rail, and squinted after my waning
"Ahoy--boat!" he called out, sharply, shielding his lips with his hand.
His violence seemed to bring him out of the blank, for he fell
immediately to puffing strongly at his cigar and explaining in rather a
shame-voiced way that he was beginning to think his own boatman had
"passed him up."
"Come in and have a nip," he urged with an abrupt heartiness, clapping
me on the shoulder.
"So you've--" I did not say what I had intended. I was thinking that in
the old days McCord had made rather a fetish of touching nothing
stronger than beer. Neither had he been of the shoulder-clapping sort.
"So you've got something aboard?" I shifted.
"Dead men's liquor," he chuckled. It gave me a queer feeling in the pit
of my stomach to hear him. I began to wish I had not come, but there was
nothing for it now but to follow him into the after-house. The cabin
itself might have been nine feet square, with three bunks occupying the
port side. To the right opened the master's stateroom, and a door in the
forward bulkhead led to the galley.
I took in these features at a casual glance. Then, hardly knowing why I
did it, I began to examine them with greater care.
"Have you a match?" I asked. My voice sounded very small, as though
something unheard of had happened to all the air.
"Smoke?" he asked. "I'll get you a cigar."
"No." I took the proffered match, scratched it on the side of the galley
door, and passed out. There seemed to be a thousand pans there, throwing
my match back at me from every wall of the box-like compartment. Even
McCord's eyes, in the doorway, were large and round and shining. He
probably thought me crazy. Perhaps I was, a little. I ran the match
along close to the ceiling and came upon a rusty hook a little aport of
the centre.
"There," I said. "Was there anything hanging from this--er--say a
parrot--or something, McCord?" The match burned my fingers and went out.
"What do you mean?" McCord demanded from the doorway. I got myself back
into the comfortable yellow glow of the cabin before I answered, and
then it was a question.
"Do you happen to know anything about this craft's personal history?"
"No. What are you talking about! Why?"
"Well, I do," I offered. "For one thing, she's changed her name. And it
happens this isn't the first time she's--Well, damn it all, fourteen
years ago I helped pick up this whatever-she-is off the Virginia
Capes--in the same sort of condition. There you are!" I was yapping like
a nerve-strung puppy.
McCord leaned forward with his hands on the table, bringing his face
beneath the fan of the hanging-lamp. For the first time I could mark how
shockingly it had changed. It was almost colourless. The jaw had somehow
lost its old-time security and the eyes seemed to be loose in their
sockets. I had expected him to start at my announcement; he only blinked
at the light.
"I am not surprised," he remarked at length. "After what I've seen and
heard--" He lifted his fist and brought it down with a sudden crash on
the table. "Man--let's have a nip!"
He was off before I could say a word, fumbling out of sight in the
narrow stateroom. Presently he reappeared, holding a glass in either
hand and a dark bottle hugged between his elbows. Putting the glasses
down, he held up the bottle between his eyes and the lamp, and its
shadow, falling across his face, green and luminous at the core, gave
him a ghastly look--like a mutilation or an unspeakable birthmark. He
shook the bottle gently and chuckled his "Dead men's liquor" again. Then
he poured two half-glasses of the clear gin, swallowed his portion, and
sat down.
"A parrot," he mused, a little of the liquor's colour creeping into his
cheeks. "No, this time it was a cat, Ridgeway. A yellow cat. She was--"
"_Was?_" I caught him up. "What's happened--what's become of her?"
"Vanished. Evaporated. I haven't seen her since night before last, when
I caught her trying to lower the boat--"
"_Stop it!_" It was I who banged the table now, without any of the
reserve of decency. "McCord, you're drunk--_drunk_, I tell you. A _cat_!
Let a _cat_ throw you off your head like this! She's probably hiding out
below this minute, on affairs of her own."
"Hiding?" He regarded me for a moment with the queer superiority of the
damned. "I guess you don't realize how many times I've been over this
hulk, from decks to keelson, with a mallet and a foot-rule."
"Or fallen overboard," I shifted, with less assurance. "Like this fellow
Björnsen. By the way, McCord--" I stopped there on account of the look
in his eyes.
He reached out, poured himself a shot, swallowed it, and got up to
shuffle about the confined quarters. I watched their restless
circuit--my friend and his jumping shadow. He stopped and bent forward
to examine a Sunday-supplement chromo tacked on the wall, and the two
heads drew together, as though there were something to whisper. Of a
sudden I seemed to hear the old gnome croaking, "Now that story sounds
to me kind of--"
McCord straightened up and turned to face me.
"What do you know about Björnsen?" he demanded.
"Well--only what they had you saying in the papers," I told him.
"Pshaw!" He snapped his fingers, tossing the affair aside. "I found her
log," he announced in quite another voice.
"You did, eh? I judged, from what I read in the paper, that there wasn't
a sign."
"No, no; I happened on this the other night, under the mattress in
there." He jerked his head toward the stateroom. "Wait!" I heard him
knocking things over in the dark and mumbling at them. After a moment he
came out and threw on the table a long, cloth-covered ledger, of the
common commercial sort. It lay open at about the middle, showing close
script running indiscriminately across the column ruling.
"When I said 'log,'" he went on, "I guess I was going it a little
strong. At least, I wouldn't want that sort of log found around _my_
vessel. Let's call it a personal record. Here's his picture,
somewhere--" He shook the book by its back and a common kodak blue-print
fluttered to the table. It was the likeness of a solid man with a
paunch, a huge square beard, small squinting eyes, and a bald head.
"What do you make of him--a writing chap?"
"From the nose down, yes," I estimated. "From the nose up, he will 'tend
to his own business if you will 'tend to yours, strictly."
McCord slapped his thigh. "By gracious! that's the fellow! He hates the
Chinaman. He knows as well as anything he ought not to put down in black
and white how intolerably he hates the Chinaman, and yet he must sneak
off to his cubby-hole and suck his pencil, and--how is it Stevenson has
it?--the 'agony of composition,' you remember. Can you imagine the
fellow, Ridgeway, bundling down here with the fever on him--"
"About the Chinaman," I broke in. "I think you said something about a
"Yes. The cook, he must have been. I gather he wasn't the master's pick,
by the reading-matter here. Probably clapped on to him by the
owners--shifted from one of their others at the last moment; a queer
trick. Listen." He picked up the book and, running over the pages with a
selective thumb, read:
     "_August second._--First part, moderate southwesterly breeze--
and so forth--er--but here he comes to it:
     "Anything can happen to a man at sea, even a funeral. In
     special to a Chinyman, who is of no account to social
     welfare, being a barbarian as I look at it.
"Something of a philosopher, you see. And did you get the reserve in
that 'even a funeral'? An artist, I tell you. But wait: let me catch him
a bit wilder. Here:
     "I'll get that mustard-coloured ---- [This is back a couple
     of days.] Never can hear the ---- coming, in them carpet
     slippers. Turned round and found him standing right to my
     back this morning. Could have stuck a knife into me easy.
     'Look here!' says I, and fetched him a tap on the ear that
     will make him walk louder next time, I warrant. He could
     have stuck a knife into me easy.
"A clear case of moral funk, I should say. Can you imagine the fellow,
"Yes; oh, yes." I was ready with a phrase of my own. "A man handicapped
with an imagination. You see he can't quite understand this 'barbarian,'
who has him beaten by about thirty centuries of civilization--and his
imagination has to have something to chew on, something to hit--a 'tap
on the ear,' you know."
"By gracious! that's the ticket!" McCord pounded his knee. "And now
we've got another chap going to pieces--Peters, he calls him. Refuses to
eat dinner on August the third, claiming he caught the Chink making
passes over the chowder-pot with his thumb. Can you believe it,
Ridgeway--in this very cabin here?" Then he went on with a suggestion of
haste, as though he had somehow made a slip. "Well, at any rate, the
disease seems to be catching. Next day it's Bach, the second seaman, who
begins to feel the gaff. Listen:
     "Bach he comes to me to-night, complaining he's being
     watched. He claims the ---- has got the evil eye. Says he
     can see you through a two-inch bulkhead, and the like. The
     Chink's laying in his bunk, turned the other way. 'Why don't
     you go aboard of him?' says I. The Dutcher says nothing, but
     goes over to his own bunk and feels under the straw. When he
     comes back he's looking queer. 'By God!' says he, 'the devil
     has swiped my gun!' ... Now if that's true there is going to
     be hell to pay in this vessel very quick. I figure I'm still
     master of this vessel."
"The evil eye," I grunted. "Consciences gone wrong there somewhere."
"Not altogether, Ridgeway. I can see that yellow man peeking. Now just
figure yourself, say, eight thousand miles from home, out on the water
alone with a crowd of heathen fanatics crazy from fright, looking around
for guns and so on. Don't you believe you'd keep an eye around the
corners, kind of--eh? I'll bet a hat he was taking it all in, lying
there in his bunk, 'turned the other way.' Eh? I pity the poor
cuss--Well, there's only one more entry after that. He's good and mad.
     "Now, by God! this is the end. My gun's gone, too; right out
     from under lock and key, by God! I been talking with Bach
     this morning. Not to let on, I had him in to clean my lamp.
     There's more ways than one, he says, and so do I."
McCord closed the book and dropped it on the table. "Finis," he said.
"The rest is blank paper."
"Well!" I will confess I felt much better than I had for some time past.
"There's _one_ 'mystery of the sea' gone to pot, at any rate. And now,
if you don't mind, I think I'll have another of your nips, McCord."
He pushed my glass across the table and got up, and behind his back his
shadow rose to scour the corners of the room, like an incorruptible
sentinel. I forgot to take up my gin, watching him. After an uneasy
minute or so he came back to the table and pressed the tip of a
forefinger on the book.
"Ridgeway," he said, "you don't seem to understand. This particular
'mystery of the sea' hasn't been scratched yet--not even _scratched_,
Ridgeway." He sat down and leaned forward, fixing me with a didactic
finger. "What happened?"
"Well, I have an idea the 'barbarian' got them, when it came to the
"And let the--remains over the side?"
"I should say."
"And they came back and got the 'barbarian' and let _him_ over the side,
eh? There were none left, you remember."
"Oh, good Lord, I don't know!" I flared with a childish resentment at
this catechizing of his. But his finger remained there, challenging.
"I do," he announced. "The Chinaman put them over the side, as we have
said. And then, after that, he died--of wounds about the head."
"So?" I had still sarcasm.
"You will remember," he went on, "that the skipper did not happen to
mention a cat, a _yellow_ cat, in his confessions."
"McCord," I begged him, "please drop it. Why in thunder _should_ he
mention a cat?"
"True. Why _should_ he mention a cat? I think one of the reasons why he
should _not_ mention a cat is because there did not happen to be a cat
aboard at that time."
"Oh, all right!" I reached out and pulled the bottle to my side of the
table. Then I took out my watch. "If you don't mind," I suggested, "I
think we'd better be going ashore. I've got to get to my office rather
early in the morning. What do you say?"
He said nothing for the moment, but his finger had dropped. He leaned
back and stared straight into the core of the light above, his eyes
"He would have been from the south of China, probably." He seemed to be
talking to himself. "There's a considerable sprinkling of the belief
down there, I've heard. It's an uncanny business--this transmigration of
Personally, I had had enough of it. McCord's fingers came groping across
the table for the bottle. I picked it up hastily and let it go through
the open companionway, where it died with a faint gurgle, out somewhere
on the river.
"Now," I said to him, shaking the vagrant wrist, "either you come ashore
with me or you go in there and get under the blankets. You're drunk,
McCord--_drunk_. Do you hear me?"
"Ridgeway," he pronounced, bringing his eyes down to me and speaking
very slowly. "You're a fool, if you can't see better than that. I'm not
drunk. I'm sick. I haven't slept for three nights--and now I can't. And
you say--you--" He went to pieces very suddenly, jumped up, pounded the
legs of his chair on the decking, and shouted at me: "And you say that,
you--you landlubber, you office coddler! You're so comfortably sure that
everything in the world is cut and dried. Come back to the water again
and learn how to wonder--and stop talking like a damn fool. Do you know
where--Is there anything in your municipal budget to tell me where
Björnsen went? Listen!" He sat down, waving me to do the same, and went
on with a sort of desperate repression.
"It happened on the first night after we took this hellion. I'd stood
the wheel most of the afternoon--off and on, that is, because she sails
herself uncommonly well. Just put her on a reach, you know, and she
carries it off pretty well--"
"I know," I nodded.
"Well, we mugged up about seven o'clock. There was a good deal of canned
stuff in the galley, and Björnsen wasn't a bad hand with a kettle--a
thoroughgoing Square-head he was--tall and lean and yellow-haired, with
little fat, round cheeks and a white moustache. Not a bad chap at all.
He took the wheel to stand till midnight, and I turned in, but I didn't
drop off for quite a spell. I could hear his boots wandering around over
my head, padding off forward, coming back again. I heard him whistling
now and then--an outlandish air. Occasionally I could see the shadow of
his head waving in a block of moonlight that lay on the decking right
down there in front of the stateroom door. It came from the companion;
the cabin was dark because we were going easy on the oil. They hadn't
left a great deal, for some reason or other."
McCord leaned back and described with his finger where the illumination
had cut the decking.
"There! I could see it from my bunk, as I lay, you understand. I must
have almost dropped off once when I heard him fiddling around out here
in the cabin, and then he said something in a whisper, just to find out
if I was still awake, I suppose. I asked him what the matter was. He
came and poked his head in the door."
"'The breeze is going out,' says he. 'I was wondering if we couldn't get
a little more sail on her.' Only I can't give you his fierce Square-head
tang. 'How about the tops?' he suggested.
"I was so sleepy I didn't care, and I told him so. 'All right,' he says,
'but I thought I might shake out one of them tops.' Then I heard him
blow at something outside. 'Scat, you ----!' Then: 'This cat's going to
set me crazy, Mr. McCord,' he says, 'following me around everywhere.' He
gave a kick, and I saw something yellow floating across the moonlight.
It never made a sound--just floated. You wouldn't have known it ever lit
anywhere, just like--"
McCord stopped and drummed a few beats on the table with his fist, as
though to bring himself back to the straight narrative.
"I went to sleep," he began again. "I dreamed about a lot of things. I
woke up sweating. You know how glad you are to wake up after a dream
like that and find none of it is so? Well, I turned over and settled to
go off again, and then I got a little more awake and thought to myself
it must be pretty near time for me to go on deck. I scratched a match
and looked at my watch. 'That fellow must be either a good chap or
asleep,' I said to myself. And I rolled out quick and went above-decks.
He wasn't at the wheel. I called him: 'Björnsen! Björnsen!' No answer."
McCord was really telling a story now. He paused for a long moment, one
hand shielding an ear and his eyeballs turned far up.
"That was the first time I really went over the hulk," he ran on. "I got
out a lantern and started at the forward end of the hold, and I worked
aft, and there was nothing there. Not a sign, or a stain, or a scrap of
clothing, or anything. You may believe that I began to feel funny
inside. I went over the decks and the rails and the house itself--inch
by inch. Not a trace. I went out aft again. The cat sat on the
wheel-box, washing her face. I hadn't noticed the scar on her head
before, running down between her ears--rather a new scar--three or four
days old, I should say. It looked ghastly and blue-white in the flat
moonlight. I ran over and grabbed her up to heave her over the side--you
understand how upset I was. Now you know a cat will squirm around and
grab something when you hold it like that, generally speaking. This one
didn't. She just drooped and began to purr and looked up at me out of
her moonlit eyes under that scar. I dropped her on the deck and backed
off. You remember Björnsen had _kicked_ her--and I didn't want anything
like that happening to--"
The narrator turned upon me with a sudden heat, leaned over and shook
his finger before my face.
"There you go!" he cried. "You, with your stout stone buildings and your
policemen and your neighbourhood church--you're so damn sure. But I'd
just like to see you out there, alone, with the moon setting, and all
the lights gone tall and queer, and a shipmate--" He lifted his hand
overhead, the finger-tips pressed together and then suddenly separated
as though he had released an impalpable something into the air.
"Go on," I told him.
"I felt more like you do, when it got light again, and warm and
sunshiny. I said 'Bah!' to the whole business. I even fed the cat, and I
slept awhile on the roof of the house--I was so sure. We lay dead most
of the day, without a streak of air. But that night--! Well, that night
I hadn't got over being sure yet. It takes quite a jolt, you know, to
shake loose several dozen generations. A fair, steady breeze had come
along, the glass was high, she was staying herself like a doll, and so I
figured I could get a little rest, lying below in the bunk, even if I
didn't sleep.
"I tried not to sleep, in case something should come up--a squall or the
like. But I think I must have dropped off once or twice. I remember I
heard something fiddling around in the galley, and I hollered 'Scat!'
and everything was quiet again. I rolled over and lay on my left side,
staring at that square of moonlight outside my door for a long time.
You'll think it was a dream--what I saw there."
"Go on," I said.
"Call this table-top the spot of light, roughly," he said. He placed a
finger-tip at about the middle of the forward edge and drew it slowly
toward the centre. "Here, what would correspond with the upper side of
the companionway, there came down very gradually the shadow of a tail. I
watched it streaking out there across the deck, wiggling the slightest
bit now and then. When it had come down about half-way across the light,
the solid part of the animal--its shadow, you understand--began to
appear, quite big and round. But how could she hang there, done up in a
ball, from the hatch?"
He shifted his finger back to the edge of the table and puddled it
around to signify the shadowed body.
"I fished my gun out from behind my back. You see, I was feeling funny
again. Then I started to slide one foot over the edge of the bunk,
always with my eyes on that shadow. Now I swear I didn't make the sound
of a pin dropping, but I had no more than moved a muscle when that
shadowed thing twisted itself around in a flash--and there on the floor
before me was the profile of a man's head, upside down, listening--a
man's head with a tail of hair."
McCord got up hastily and stepped over in front of the stateroom door,
where he bent down and scratched a match.
"See," he said, holding the tiny flame above a splintered scar on the
boards. "You wouldn't think a man would be fool enough to shoot at a
He came back and sat down.
"It seemed to me all hell had shaken loose. You've no idea, Ridgeway,
the rumpus a gun raises in a box like this. I found out afterward the
slug ricochetted into the galley, bringing down a couple of pans--and
that helped. Oh, yes, I got out of here quick enough. I stood there,
half out of the companion, with my hands on the hatch and the gun
between them, and my shadow running off across the top of the house
shivering before my eyes like a dry leaf. There wasn't a whisper of
sound in the world--just the pale water floating past and the sails
towering up like a pair of twittering ghosts. And everything that crazy
"Well, in a minute I saw it, just abreast of the mainmast, crouched down
in the shadow of the weather rail, sneaking off forward very slowly.
This time I took a good long sight before I let go. Did you ever happen
to see black-powder smoke in the moonlight? It puffed out perfectly
round, like a big, pale balloon, this did, and for a second something
was bounding through it--without a sound, you understand--something a
shade solider than the smoke and big as a cow, it looked to me. It
passed from the weather side to the lee and ducked behind the sweep of
the mainsail like _that_--" McCord snapped his thumb and forefinger
under the light.
"Go on," I said. "What did you do then?"
McCord regarded me for an instant from beneath his lids, uncertain. His
fist hung above the table. "You're--" He hesitated, his lips working
vacantly. A forefinger came out of the fist and gesticulated before my
face. "If you're laughing, why, damn me, I'll--"
"Go on," I repeated. "What did you do then?"
"I followed the thing." He was still watching me sullenly. "I got up and
went forward along the roof of the house, so as to have an eye on either
rail. You understand, this business had to be done with. I kept straight
along. Every shadow I wasn't absolutely sure of I _made_ sure
of--point-blank. And I rounded the thing up at the very stern--sitting
on the butt of the bowsprit, Ridgeway, washing her yellow face under the
moon. I didn't make any bones about it this time. I put the bad end of
that gun against the scar on her head and squeezed the trigger. It
snicked on an empty shell. I tell you a fact; I was almost deafened by
the report that didn't come.
"She followed me aft. I couldn't get away from her. I went and sat on
the wheel-box and she came and sat on the edge of the house, facing me.
And there we stayed for upward of an hour, without moving. Finally she
went over and stuck her paw in the water-pan I'd set out for her; then
she raised her head and looked at me and yawled. At sundown there'd
been two quarts of water in that pan. You wouldn't think a cat could get
away with two quarts of water in--"
He broke off again and considered me with a sort of weary defiance.
"What's the use?" He spread out his hands in a gesture of hopelessness.
"I knew you wouldn't believe it when I started. You _couldn't_. It would
be a kind of blasphemy against the sacred institution of pavements.
You're too damn smug, Ridgeway. I can't shake you. You haven't sat two
days and two nights, keeping your eyes open by sheer teeth-gritting,
until they got used to it and wouldn't shut any more. When I tell you I
found that yellow thing snooping around the davits, and three bights off
the boat-fall loosened out, plain on deck--you grin behind your collar.
When I tell you she padded off forward and evaporated--flickered back to
hell and hasn't been seen since, then--why, you explain to yourself that
I'm drunk. I tell you--" He jerked his head back abruptly and turned to
face the companionway, his lips still apart. He listened so for a
moment, then he shook himself out of it and went on:
"I tell you, Ridgeway, I've been over this hulk with a foot-rule.
There's not a cubic inch I haven't accounted for, not a plank I--"
This time he got up and moved a step toward the companion, where he
stood with his head bent forward and slightly to the side. After what
might have been twenty seconds of this he whispered, "Do you hear?"
Far and far away down the reach a ferry-boat lifted its infinitesimal
wail, and then the silence of the night river came down once more,
profound and inscrutable. A corner of the wick above my head sputtered a
little--that was all.
"Hear what?" I whispered back. He lifted a cautious finger toward the
"Somebody. Listen."
The man's faculties must have been keyed up to the pitch of his nerves,
for to me the night remained as voiceless as a subterranean cavern. I
became intensely irritated with him; within my mind I cried out against
this infatuated pantomime of his. And then, of a sudden, there was a
sound--the dying rumour of a ripple, somewhere in the outside darkness,
as though an object had been let into the water with extreme care.
"You heard?"
I nodded. The ticking of the watch in my vest pocket came to my ears,
shucking off the leisurely seconds, while McCord's finger-nails gnawed
at the palms of his hands. The man was really sick. He wheeled on me and
cried out, "My God! Ridgeway--why don't we go out?"
I, for one, refused to be a fool. I passed him and climbed out of the
opening; he followed far enough to lean his elbows on the hatch, his
feet and legs still within the secure glow of the cabin.
"You see, there's nothing." My wave of assurance was possibly a little
"Over there," he muttered, jerking his head toward the shore lights.
"Something swimming."
I moved to the corner of the house and listened.
"River thieves," I argued. "The place is full of--"
"_Ridgeway. Look behind you!_"
Perhaps it is the pavements--but no matter; I am not ordinarily a
jumping sort. And yet there was something in the quality of that voice
beyond my shoulder that brought the sweat stinging through the pores of
my scalp even while I was in the act of turning.
A cat sat there on the hatch, expressionless and immobile in the gloom.
I did not say anything. I turned and went below. McCord was there
already, standing on the farther side of the table. After a moment or so
the cat followed and sat on her haunches at the foot of the ladder and
stared at us without winking.
"I think she wants something to eat," I said to McCord.
He lit a lantern and went out into the galley. Returning with a chunk of
salt beef, he threw it into the farther corner. The cat went over and
began to tear at it, her muscles playing with convulsive shadow-lines
under the sagging yellow hide.
And now it was she who listened, to something beyond the reach of even
McCord's faculties, her neck stiff and her ears flattened. I looked at
McCord and found him brooding at the animal with a sort of listless
malevolence. "_Quick!_ She has kittens somewhere about." I shook his
elbow sharply. "When she starts, now--"
"You don't seem to understand," he mumbled. "It wouldn't be any use."
She had turned now and was making for the ladder with the soundless
agility of her race. I grasped McCord's wrist and dragged him after me,
the lantern banging against his knees. When we came up the cat was
already amidships, a scarcely discernible shadow at the margin of our
lantern's ring. She stopped and looked back at us with her luminous
eyes, appeared to hesitate, uneasy at our pursuit of her, shifted here
and there with quick, soft bounds, and stopped to fawn with her back
arched at the foot of the mast. Then she was off with an amazing
suddenness into the shadows forward.
"Lively now!" I yelled at McCord. He came pounding along behind me,
still protesting that it was of no use. Abreast of the foremast I took
the lantern from him to hold above my head.
"You see," he complained, peering here and there over the illuminated
deck. "I tell you, Ridgeway, this thing--" But my eyes were in another
quarter, and I slapped him on the shoulder.
"An engineer--an engineer to the core," I cried at him. "Look aloft,
Our quarry was almost to the cross-trees, clambering up the shrouds
with a smartness no sailor has ever come to, her yellow body, cut by the
moving shadows of the ratlines, a queer sight against the mat of the
night. McCord closed his mouth and opened it again for two words: "By
gracious!" The following instant he had the lantern and was after her. I
watched him go up above my head--a ponderous, swaying climber into the
sky--come to the cross-trees, and squat there with his knees clamped
around the mast. The clear star of the lantern shot this way and that
for a moment, then it disappeared, and in its place there sprang out a
bag of yellow light, like a fire-balloon at anchor in the heavens. I
could see the shadows of his head and hands moving monstrously over the
inner surface of the sail, and muffled exclamations without meaning came
down to me. After a moment he drew out his head and called: "All
right--they're here. Heads! there below!"
I ducked at his warning, and something spanked on the planking a yard
from my feet. I stepped over to the vague blur on the deck and picked up
a slipper--a slipper covered with some woven straw stuff and soled with
a matted felt, perhaps a half-inch thick. Another struck somewhere abaft
the mast, and then McCord reappeared above and began to stagger down the
shrouds. Under his left arm he hugged a curious assortment of litter, a
sheaf of papers, a brace of revolvers, a gray kimono, and a soiled
"Well," he said when he had come to deck, "I feel like a man who has
gone to hell and come back again. You know I'd come to the place where I
really believed that about the cat. When you think of it--By gracious!
we haven't come so far from the jungle, after all."
We went aft and below and sat down at the table as we had been. McCord
broke a prolonged silence.
"I'm sort of glad he got away--poor cuss! He's probably climbing up a
wharf this minute, shivering and scared to death. Over toward the
gas-tanks, by the way he was swimming. By gracious! now that the world's
turned over straight again, I feel I could sleep a solid week. Poor
cuss! can you imagine him, Ridgeway--"
"Yes," I broke in. "I think I can. He must have lost his nerve when he
made out your smoke and shinnied up there to stow away, taking the
ship's papers with him. He would have attached some profound importance
to them--remember, the 'barbarian,' eight thousand miles from home.
Probably couldn't read a word. I suppose the cat followed him--the
traditional source of food. He must have wanted water badly."
"I should say! He wouldn't have taken the chances he did."
"Well," I announced, "at any rate, I can say it now--there's another
'mystery of the sea' gone to pot."
McCord lifted his heavy lids.
"No," he mumbled. "The mystery is that a man who has been to sea all
his life could sail around for three days with a man bundled up in his
top and not know it. When I think of him peeking down at me--and playing
off that damn cat--probably without realizing it--scared to death--by
gracious! Ridgeway, there was a pair of funks aboard this craft, eh?
Wow--yow--I could sleep--"
"I should think you could."
McCord did not answer.
"By the way," I speculated. "I guess you were right about Björnsen,
McCord--that is, his fooling with the foretop. He must have been caught
all of a bunch, eh?"
Again McCord failed to answer. I looked up mildly surprised, and found
his head hanging back over his chair and his mouth opened wide. He was

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