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El Dorado

The night had fallen over the harbour before the winch began to rattle.
The stars came out, calm and golden, shaking little tracks in the sea.
In the tiers of ships shone the riding-lights. To the westward, where
the Point jutted out, the great golden light of Negra winked and
glimmered as it revolved. It was a beat continually, like the marching
of an army, along the line of the coast. In one of the tiers of ships
there was a sing-song. A crew had gathered on the forecastle head, to
beat their pannikins to the stars. The words of their song floated out
into the darkness, full of a haunting beauty which thrilled and
satisfied me. There was something in the night, in the air, in the
beauty of the town, and in the sweetness of the sailors' singing, which
made me sorry to be leaving. I should have liked to have gone ashore
again, to the _Calle del Inca_, where the cafes and taverns stood. I
should have liked to have seen those stately pale women, in their black
robes, with the scarlet roses in their hair, swaying slowly on the
stage to the clicking of the castenets. I should have liked to have
taken part in another wild dance among the tables of the wine shops. I
was sorry to be leaving.

When the winch began to clank, as the cable was hove in, I gathered up
my lead-line, and went to the leadsman's dicky, or little projecting
platform, on the starboard side. I was to be the leadsman that night,
and as we should soon be moving, I made the breast-rope secure, and
stood by.

Presently the bell of the engine-room clanged, and there came a wash
abaft as the screws thrashed. The ship trembled, as the turbulent
trampling of the engines shook her. The bell clanged again; the water
below me gleamed and whitened; the dark body of the steamer, with her
lines of lit ports, swept slowly across the lights in the harbour. The
trampling of the engines steadied, and took to itself a rhythm. We
were off. I cast an eye astern at the little town I was so sad to
leave, and caught a glimpse of a path of churned water, broadening
astern of us. A voice sounded from the promenade deck behind me. "Zat
light, what you call 'eem?"

I could not answer. My orders were to keep strict silence. The point
of an umbrella took me sharply below the shoulders. "What you call
'eem--zat light? Ze light zere?"

I wondered if I could swing my lead on to him; it was worth trying.
Again came the umbrella; and again the bell of the engine-room clanged.

"Are you ready there with the lead?" came the mate's voice above me.
"All ready with the lead, sir." "What have we now?" I gathered
forward and swung the lead. I could not reach the umbrella-man, even
with my spare line. Once, twice, thrice I swung, and pitched the
plummet well forward into the bow wash.

"By the deep, eight, sir."

Again the bell clanged; the ship seemed to tremble and stop. "Another
cast now, quickly." "And a half, seven, sir." As I hauled in, I again
tasted the umbrella, and another question came to me: "What 'ave you
do? Why 'ave you do zat?" I swore under my breath. "Are you asleep
there leadsman?" The mate was biting his finger-ends. I sent the lead
viciously into the sea. "Quarter less seven, sir." "Another cast,
smartly, now." Rapidly I hauled in, humming an old ballad to myself.
"We'll have the ship ashore," I repeated. There was a step on the deck
behind me, and again came the voice, "Ze man, ze man zere what 'ave he
do? Why 'ave 'e go like so?" "Won't you pass further aft, sir?" said
a suave voice. "You're interrup'in' the leadsman." It was one of the
quartermasters. Once again the lead flew forward. "By the mark,
seven, sir."

There was a pause; then came the voice again. "I go zees way," said
the quartermaster. The steps of the umbrella-man passed away aft.
"Zees way," said the quartermaster, under his breath, "zees way! You
gaw-dem Dago!" I could have hugged the fellow.

"What now?" said the old man, leaning over from the bridge. I cast
again. "And a half, eight, sir."

"We're clear," said the voice above me. "Speed ahead, Mr. Jenkins."
I gathered up my line. The engine-room bell clanged once more; the
ship seemed to leap suddenly forward. In a few seconds, even as I
coiled my line, the bow wash broadened to a roaring water. The white
of it glimmered and boiled, and spun away from us streaked with fires.
Across the stars above us the mists from the smoke-stack stretched in a
broad cloud. Below me the engines trampled thunderously. Ahead there
were the lights, and the figure of the look-out, and the rush and hurry
of the water. Astern, far astern already, were the port, the ships at
anchor, and the winking light on the Point. A bugle abaft called the
passengers to dinner, and I watched them as they went from their
cabins. A lady, in blue gown, with a shawl round her head, was talking
to a man in evening dress. "Isn't it interesting," she remarked, "to
hear them making the soundings?" The white shirt was politely
non-committal. "Aft there, two of you," said a hard voice, "and trice
the ladder up. Smartly now." The lady in the blue dress stopped to
watch us.

I did not see the umbrella-man again until the next day, when I passed
him on the hurricane deck. He was looking at the coast through a pair
of binoculars. We were running to the north, in perfect Pacific
weather, under a soft blue sky that was patrolled by little soft white
clouds. The land lay broad to starboard, a land of yellow hills with
surf-beaten outliers of black reef. Here and there we passed villages
in the watered valleys, each with its whitewashed church and copper
smeltry. The umbrella-man was looking beyond these, at the hills.

He was a little man, this man who had prodded me, with a long, pale
face and pale eyes, a long reddish beard, and hair rather darker, both
hair and beard being sparse. He was a fidgety person, always twitching
with his hands, and he walked with something of a strut, as though the
earth belonged to him. He snapped-to the case of his binoculars as
though he had sheathed a sword.

Later in the day, after supper, in the second dog-watch, as I sat
smoking on the fore-coamings, he came up to me and spoke to me. "You
know zees coas'?" he asked. Yes, I knew the coast. "What you zink?"
he asked; "you like 'eem?" No, I didn't like 'eem. "Ah," he said,
"You 'ave been wizzin?" I asked him what he meant. "Wizzin," he
repeated, "wizzen, in ze contry. You 'ave know ze land, ze peoples?"
I growled that I had been within, to Lima, and to Santiago, and that I
had been ashore at the Chincha Islands. "Ah," he said, with a strange
quickening of interest, "you 'ave been to Lima; you like 'eem?" No, I
had not. "I go wizzen," he said proudly. "It is because I go; zat is
why I ask. Zere is few 'ave gone wizzen." An old quartermaster walked
up to us. "There's very few come back, sir," he said. "Them
Indians----" "Ah, ze Indians," said the little man scornfully, "ze
Indians; I zeenk nozzin of ze Indians." "Beg pardon, sir," said the
old sailor, "They're a tough crowd, them copper fellers." "I no
understan';" said the Frenchman. "They pickle people's heads," said
the old sailor, "in the sand or somethin'. They keep for ever pretty
near when once they're pickled. They pickle every one's head and sell
'em in Lima: I've knowed 'em get a matter of three pound for a good
head." "Heads?" said another sailor. "I had one myself once. I got
it at Tacna, but it wasn't properly pickled or something--it was a
red-headed beggar the chap as owned it--I had to throw it away. It got
too strong for the crowd," he explained. "Ah zose Indians," said the
Frenchman. "I 'ave 'eard; zey tell me, zey tell me at Valparaiso. But
ah, it ees a fool; it ees a fool; zere is no Indians." "Beg pardon,
sir," said the old sailor, "but if you go up among them jokers, you'll
have to look slippy with a gun, sir," "Ah, a gon," he answered, "a
gon. I was not to be bozzered wiz a gon. I 'ave what you call
'eem--peestol." He produced a boy's derringer, which might have cost
about ten dollars, Spanish dollars, in the pawnshops of Santiago.
"Peestol," murmured a sailor, gasping, as he shambled forward to laugh,
"peestol, the gawdem Dago's balmy."

During the next few days I saw the Frenchman frequently. He was a
wonder to us, and his plans were discussed at every meal, and in every
watch below. In the dog-watches he would come forward, with his
eternal questions: "What is wizzin? In ze contry?" We would tell him,
"Indians, or highwaymen," or "a push of highbinders;" and he would
answer: "It ees nozzin, it ees a fool." Once he asked us if we had
heard of any gold being found "wizzen." "Gold?" said one of us.
"Gold? O' course there's gold, any God's quantity. Them Incas ate
gold; they're buried in it." "'Ave you know zem, ze Incas?" he asked
eagerly. "I seen a tomb of theirs once," said the sailor; "it were in
a cove, like the fo'c'sle yonder, and full of knittin'-needles." "What
is zem?" said the Frenchman. The sailor shambled below to his chest,
and returned with a handful of little sticks round which some balls of
coloured threads were bound. "Knittin'-needles," said the sailor.
"Them ain't no knittin'-needles. Writin'? How could them be writin'?
Well, I heard tell once," replied the other. "It ees zeir way of
writing," said the Frenchman; "I 'ave seen; zat is zeir way of writing;
ze knots is zeir letters." "Bleedin' funny letters, I call 'em," said
the needles-theorist. "You and your needles," said the other. "Now,
what d'ye call 'em?" The bell upon the bridge clanged. "Eight bells,"
said the company; "aft to muster, boys." The bugle at the saloon-door
announced supper.

We were getting pretty well to the north--Mollendo, or
thereabouts--when I had my last conversation with the Frenchman. He
came up to me one night, as I sat on the deck to leeward of the winch,
keeping the first watch as snugly as I could. "You know zees coast
long?" he asked. I had not. Then came the never-ceasing, "'Ave you
know of ze Incas?" Yes, lot of general talk; and I had seen Incas
curios, mostly earthware, in every port in Peru. "You 'ave seen gold?"
No; there was never any gold. The Spaniards made a pretty general
average of any gold there was. "It ees a fool," he answered. "I tell
you," he went on, "it ees a fool. Zay have say zat; zey 'ave all say
zat; it ees a fool. Zere is gold. Zere is a hundred million pounds;
zere is twenty tousan' million dollars; zere is El Dorado. Beyond ze
mountains zere is El Dorado; zere is a town of gold. Zay say zere is
no gold? Zere is. I go to find ze gold; zat is what I do; I fin' ze
gold, I, Paul Bac." "Alone?" I asked. "I, Paul Bac," he answered.

I looked at him a moment. He was a little red-haired man, slightly
made, but alert and active-looking. He knew no Spanish, no Indian
dialects, and he had no comrade. I told him that I thought he didn't
know what he was doing. "Ha!" he said. "Listen: I go to Payta; I go
by train to Chito; zen I reach ze Morona River; from zere I reach
Marinha. Listen: El Dorado is between ze Caqueta and ze Putumayo
Rivers, in ze forest." I would have asked him how he knew, but I had
to break away to relieve the lookout. I wished the little man good
night; I never spoke with him again.

I thought of him all that watch, as I kept scanning the seas. I should
be going up and down, I thought, landing passengers through surf, or
swaying bananas out of launches, or crying the sounds as we came to
moorings. He would be going on under the stars, full of unquenchable
hope, stumbling on the bones of kings. He would be wading across bogs,
through rivers and swamps, through unutterable and deathly places,
singing some songs, and thinking of the golden city. He was a pilgrim,
a poet, a person to reverence. And if he got there, if he found El
Dorado--but that was absurd. I thought of him sadly, with the feeling
that he had learned how to live, and that he would die by applying his
knowledge. I wondered how he would die. He would be alone there, in
the tangle, stumbling across creepers. The poisoned blow-pipe, from
the long, polished blow-pipe, such as I had seen in the museums. He
would fall on his face, among the jungle. Then the silent Indian would
hack off his head with a flint, and pickle it for the Lima markets. He
would never get to the Caqueta. Or perhaps he would be caught in an
electric storm, an aire, as they call them, and be stricken down among
the hills on his way to Chito. More probably he would die of hunger or
thirst, as so many had died before him. I remembered a cowboy whom I
had found under a thorn bush in the Argentine. Paul Bac would be like
that cowboy; he would run short of water, and kill his horse for the
blood, and then go mad and die.

I was in my bunk when he went ashore at Payta, but a fellow in the
other watch told me how he left the ship. There was a discussion in
the forecastle that night as to the way the heads were prepared. Some
said it was sand; some said it was the leaf of the puro bush; one or
two held out for a mixture of pepper and nitrate. One man speculated
as to the probable price the head would fetch; and the general vote was
for two pounds, or two pounds ten. "It wouldn't give me no pleasure,"
said one of us, "to have that ginger-nob in my chest." "Nor me, it
wouldn't," said another; "I draw the line at having a corpse on my
tobacker." "And I do," said several. Clearly the Frenchman was
destined for a town museum.

It was more than a year after that I heard of the end of the El Dorado
hunter. I was in New York when I heard it, serving behind the bar of a
saloon. One evening, as I was mixing cocktails, I heard myself hailed
by a customer; and there was Billy Neeld, one of our quartermasters,
just come ashore from an Atlantic Transport boat. We had a drink
together, and yarned of old times. The names of our old shipmates were
like incantations. The breathing of them brought the past before us;
the past which was so recent, yet so far away; the past which is so
dear to a sailor and so depressing to a landsman. So and so was dead,
and Jimmy had gone among the Islands, and Dick had pulled out for home
because "he couldn't stick that Mr. Jenkins." Very few of them
remained on the Coast; the brothers of the Coast are a shifty crowd.

"D'ye remember the Frenchman," I asked, "the man who was always asking
about the Incas?" "The ginger-headed feller?" "Yes, a little fellow."
"A red-headed, ambitious little runt? I remember him," said Billy; "he
left us at Payta, the time we fouled the launch." "That's the man," I
said; "have you heard anything of him?" "Oh, he's dead all right,"
said Billy. "His mother came out after him; there was a piece in the
Chile _Times_ about him." "He was killed, I suppose?" "Yes, them
Indians got him, somewhere in Ecuador, Tommy Hains told me. They got
his head back, though. It was being sold in the streets; his old
mother offered a reward, and the Dagoes got it back for her. He's dead
all right, he is; he might ha' known as much, going alone among them
Indians. Dead? I guess he is dead; none but a red-headed runt'd have
been such a lunk as to try it." "He was an ambitious lad," I said.
"Yes," said Billy, "he was. Them ambitious fellers, they want the
earth, and they get their blooming heads pickled; that's what they get
by it. Here's happy days, young feller."

Previous: The Terrible Solomons

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