Sea Stories

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."

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