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AT THE EBB-TIDE
BY CHARLES JOHNSON POST Author of "A Venezuelan Gavroche," etc.
LL ready, sir," bawled the first officer. The captain waved his hand from the bridge, and on the instant came the muffled splash from under the bows, and then the hoarse rattle of chain; a Chilian sailor touched a burning rope's-end to the old-fashioned brass cannon, and sluggishly the Mopucha swung round with the coastwise set of the tide. Already the little port boat was half-way from shore, and presently the saddle-colored port-officer and the doctor climbed the side-ladder, and with a puffy dignity followed the captain into the chart-house. A few minutes later they reappeared, followed by the hopeless captain. The latter turned to the group of passengers.
"Quarantine again; five days, maybe a week or two."
A tattered Chilian ran a huge yellow flag up the foremast while the saddle-colored officials were pulled ashore, and then for five slow days under the tropic sun we watched the squat, gaudy port of call blister on the edge of the South American desert, and all because of two Chilian sailors down with malarial fever in a slimy barricade between-decks that did duty as the ship's hospital. The purser hunted up the key to the big chicken-coop aft, and the Chinamen of the deck steerage chattered in angry groups; for it is the pleasant rule of the boat to collect a shilling a day demurrage from the steerage and half a sovereign from first-class passengers; and when the Chinamen, thrifty and assertive, refuse to pay, it is the duty of the purser, assisted by a tattered gang of Chilians from the forecastle, to lock them in the chicken-coop until they do.
For five days we shriveled in the heat, and then the port-officer added two more for good measure, while the doctor sold us medicines, and the port-officer collected commissions on the supplies that were ordered by the string of flags at the masthead, and delivered by means of a small ship's boat anchored midway between the
ship and the shore. Thirty days out from the Boca at Panama, and Callao not yet in prospect!
In the slow monotony of this dot-andcarry-one voyage, with the endless, heated blue overhead and the sluggish Pacific swells beneath, every diffident stranger of that first supper aboard at the Boca was now a long-standing intimate. Caste, custom, and convention faded away, and naught remained but a polyglot fraternity that ran from the deck steerage to the chart-house, and included all but the chattering Chinamen and the crew; and a dozen port-officers had been successively damned by us in as many varieties of vernacular.
As the yellow flag at last came down, a score of clumsy lanchas, propelled by twenty-foot sweeps, like galleys, and looking like nothing so much as a fleet of gigantic water-bugs, crawled alongside. The steam-winches at the port hatches banged and clattered all day, until, in the mellow tropical evening, the Mopucha began preparing to get under way. The last lancha, piled with the baggage on which the owners sat, made fast; a cask used as a chair clattered from the winch, and one by one, deck and cabin passengers, were hoisted in. A light westerly breeze, which scarcely rippled the surface on the groundswell, was all that stirred, yet it banked up the swells until the racks had been on the tables for the noon breakfast, and in the distance the desert coast was fanged with a white, angry surf.
From the upper deck the passengers of the first cabin observed the new arrivals as they were swung through the after side hatch. The last to come, a woman in a yellow satin and black lace dress, and with a dull-black rebozo over her head, spoiled, shabby finery, and bedraggled with the salt surf, stepped easily into the cask. A copper-colored lanchero passed up to her a small child gay with fluttering ribbons and the fluffy clothes of Spanish childhood, the donkey-engine rattled, and an instant later they were aboard.
"I see we 've got Chiquitita, Captain," called the first officer from the overhang of the bridge.
The dreary, coast-dulled captain nodded.
"Tell Mr. McCampbell he knows the orders."
McCampbell was the purser, a Chilian of four generations who spoke no word of English, and who fatuously believed he had inherited a fine Anglo-Saxon phlegm.
"Who's Chiquitita, Captain?" inquired one of the group.
"Chiquitita? Most everybody on this coast knows 'er from Punta Arenas clear up to Guayaquil. 'Er in the yeller dress what 's just come on. I d' know rightly whether she 's Roosian 'r English 'r Scandahoovian; she ain't Spanish. Speaks English like you 'r me,-better English 'n Spanish, they say,-and she 's got about as bad a reputation as there is on the coast. Got caught once robbin' a state-room, or as good as caught, and since then none o' the boats 'll take her except deck steerage. That's what I was reminding McCampbell of."
On the west coast it is deck steerage or first cabin; there is no intermediate.
The captain climbed to the bridge, while the first officer went forward to heave the anchor short. The young engineer and the grandson of an archdeacon went into the smoking-room to play chess, while the rest scattered or drifted aft to where a rope, stretched across the deck between the port and starboard chickencoops, marked off the steerage. The Chinamen were squatting about the ship's iron pots, from which they filled their little bowls; farther aft a gaudily ponchoed crowd of natives amiably dipped from a single pot, scorning the exotic niceties of individual platters. Their general baggage made a low barrier down the length of the after deck; on the starboard side were gathered the women and children. Down below were the nominal sleepingquarters, rancid and stifling, while here on deck were established little plats of ponchos and vicugna rugs that marked the precincts of inviolable households.
The woman in the yellow satin dress was busy arranging with her baggage a niche for herself and the child. From a corded rawhide pack-trunk she produced a couple of plates and a bowl of native
beaten silver, and on these coasts of Pizarro and the Incas silver is no sign of luxury. A half-naked Chilian sailor climbed through the companionway from below with a steaming iron pot, and was surrounded by a crowd of squealing, clattering native women and children; after him appeared one of the cabin stewards with a smaller pot, which he delivered to the woman in the yellow satin.
The purser strolled up, looking them over impersonally. He glanced at the woman, and then his eye fell on the child, who was curiously and gravely surveying the Chinamen knitting with their chopsticks and bowls.
"Pobrecita!" he said softly.
At that moment the woman called, and the child, fluttering happily, danced back. Its foot caught in the cloth on which the Chinamen had been playing some curious game with their narrow ebony cards and where their bean counters still lay in respective groups; the child stumbled, and the little heaps and ebony strips were scattered.
A shrill Chinaman aimed a kick at the baby figure with his naked foot; the communal pot was overturned in a squealing, angry confusion. In an instant the woman in the yellow satin dress had passed the low barrier of baggage; her rebozo had fallen back and revealed in full the dry, flaxen hair, the hard lines and the patches of raw, cheap rouge that even the heavy coating of powder failed to soften. There was a swift movement, a brief flash of stocking, and a gun swept the air as she jerked the shrill Chinaman to his feet by the collar of his formless blouse. The gun descended, and a dazed Chinaman dropped to the deck with his cheek-bone laid open from the blow. The rest of the group fell back before the ominous click of the cocked revolver as with the other hand she raised the child-it was scarcely more than a baby-to its feet, and backed off to the little niche among the piled baggage.
It was all past before the purser was half-way over the stretched rope barrier. The Chinese patron came forward, and there was a few moments of angry chattering. But the man who has the power to lock you in a chicken-coop unless you give him a shilling a day is too powerful a being to be trifled with, and McCamp
bell, to emphasize how trivial a matter were a few scattered ebonies and beans, kicked half of them overboard. McCampbell liked children with a democratic fondness that was as remote from the Latin as his name.
But the half-breed children stopped their feeding long enough to chant in a merciless, derisive refrain, "Pu-teetah! Pu-teetah! Pu-teetah!" the ribald diminutive of the most ancient of professions. The child, young as it was, shrank into the folds of the yellow satin. It was the tone, the hostile jeer, that made the unmeaning word a whip of scorpions to the tender years. Here and there on the after deck a face sneered with an idle contempt -the unimaginative scorn of the sodden lucky for the outcast and the helpless.
The woman in the in the yellow dress shrugged her shoulders contemptuously, -one cannot fight an army of ants,-and stooped to refasten the gun in its garter holster; she caressed the child a brief moment and, as she straightened up, with the baby fingers still clinging to hers, the fading light of evening, mingling with the swaying lantern overhead, showed a face softened and human with helpless, unselfish suffering.
McCampbell was climbing back over the rope, buttoning in his waistband as he did so a little pink, pearl-handled revolver. Caramba!" he remarked, "Chiquitita está una diabla pintada!"
"A painted devil," repeated one of the group absently. "Did you see that look just now? But what a chance for a kid! What show has it got!"
He had imagination, that man; yet he was a gambler, not of the old Mississippi River kind, or the modern prototype who works the big Atlantic steamers. He had run a house in Dawson, Nome, Goldfield, and Frisco, and now he was backer for a string of them. Incidentally he never played poker himself; the most he would do was a game of "koon-can" at ten cents a corner.
The ship's bell began to chime forward, and was lost in the immediate bugle-call that brought the scattered passengers converging to the companion that led to the dining-hall. The captain listened indifferently as he heard of Chiquitita and the Chinaman; the boy surgeon, fresh from a Chilian medical school, chattered volubly
with the purser over contused, incised, and punctured wounds; and old Goya, a second Sancho Panza, who had a cacao plantation back of Coquimbo, gave a disconnected report on Chiquitita and the
Presently on the cleared tables began the regular evening poker and "rocambor," while in the tiny smoking-room on the upper deck went on the continuation of the never-finished chess. From the after deck came the low thrumming of native-made guitars and the droning native songs, with simple reiterations that are rooted in the pre-Inca days. That evening there was no koon-can; instead, the koon-can player was located in one of the canvas deck chairs near the rope barrier, enticing a small, barefooted, blonde baby in a scandalously wispy night-dress to violate the sacred steerage regulations and join him. His scanty Spanish words, picked up on the voyage, reduced him to her level of childish vocabulary, and when she also found him responsive to her primitive English, understanding and confidence developed rapidly.
The woman in the yellow satin dress was dim in the shadows from the swaying lantern overhead. Presently she sauntered idly over to the rail, and then drifted over to the rope. She lighted a cigarette; in the flare of the match the man saw her eyes fixed upon him in scrutiny. Misunderstanding, his jaw hardened; self-conscious, his little playing became awkward; he placed the child upon the deck. "Catuca"-tenderness softened the hard voice of the wearer of the yellow satin dress—“Catuca mia, it is time—”
Obediently the child let the big hand go, and pattered across the deck.
"Your kid?" asked the man.
Hard and uncertain, she read in his voice a sneer; moreover to travel deck steerage by compulsion of a reputation that ran up and down two thousand miles of coast breeds irritation.
"What's that to you?" she retorted truculently.
The man laughed contemptuously at the wanton insolence. Then he changed abruptly.
"I want to give the kid a chance," he said. "What will you sell her for?"
For answer the woman lifted the child gently in her arms, and strode off into the
dim shadows of the lantern. Its uncertain high lights occasionally fell on the yellow satin dress, and presently there came the sound of sleepy baby gurglings. Very shortly they ceased, and the woman reappeared at the rope. The man shrugged his shoulders.
"So you want to buy the kid, eh?" she sneered. "It is n't often I see a gringo down this way, so I don't mind talking. So 's to give it a chance!" She laughed scornfully. "Say, bo, before I sell that kid 'r give it up, somebody 'll cross my dead body, see?"
There was no doubt of the captain's statement that she spoke English better than Spanish; it was good New Yorkese. "Yes," repeated the man, "to give her a chance the chance you never had, or, if you did, you chucked.”
"That kid 'll have its chance-education, clothes, money. I guess you know I don't travel deck because I 'm broke'."
"Yes, and after education, clothes, and money, what? What can you give it or keep it from?"
The woman seated herself on the rope. "It'll have a better chance than its mother gave it," she said coolly. "No, I ain't its mother; she was a fool girl that came down here with a gringo show. She 's dead, and the kid would have been dead, too, or rollin' in the mud along of greaser 'r Cholo kids in one of these coast towns if it had n't been for me. And say, what that kid thinks of me—you saw, did n't you?" She broke off abruptly.
"Some day it'll know what to think. Let me give it a chance," said the man with grim appeal.
She heard and flinched; her voice stirred with a dwarfed and stunted passion; she was defending as with a blind, primal instinct her right to love-a squalid tragedy. What she said made no difference; it was a maudlin jumble, yet through it all ran an incoherent affection and the pitiful, defensive consciousness, from which she savagely shrank, that it tainted what it touched.
"Maybe it's pretty decent of you, and maybe it ain't-I don't care," she concluded; "but that kid 's mine, and I 'd like to see the one that 'll get it except over my dead body. And that goes as it lays, see?" She rose, and disappeared in the shadows of the after deck.
"Poor little kid!" said the man, slowly. He sat back in the canvas chair and lit a cigar. He sat thoughtfully for a long time. The archdeacon's grandson and the engineer finished the last chess for that night, and stepped out on deck. Seeing him aft, they dragged along chairs and seated themselves alongside. Presently the rocambor broke up, and a German drummer for a commission house; old Goya, the cacao-planter; Palacios, the guano-shipper; and Padre Diego, an Ecuadorian refugee whose mild features and round head scarcely looked the value in silver that a revolutionary government had once put upon them, came up from below for the final evening smoke. The steady chunk and sleepy clamor of the engines rose monotonously from below; the after deck was quiet except for a few groups chattering in low tones as they passed round a bottle of vicious cañassa. The idea was still in the man's mind. He was the first to speak.
"Say, it's mighty tough being a kid like that-" he nodded his head toward the deck steerage-"without a chance, and then grow up."
"Rotten, I say-what," observed the Englishman, sympathetically.
"Ferry ligely," added the German, indifferently. He translated for the benefit of the others. They puffed on their Peruvian cheroots idly; it had not been worth translating.
"Yes," went on the man, idly, "the world 's pretty tough on a girl kid. Somehow a fellow can pull out some way, and pretty near any time, too, if he 's got it in him; but a girl kid! If she gets started wrong, it don't seem that there's any way back for them, even when they grow up and get brains. The brains don't help 'em none, either. Curious, ain't it? You'd think they would."
"If there is n't morals, there is n't brains," said the engineer, sententiously; "it takes brains to be moral."
"Say," returned the other, "forget it, friend. Did you ever hear of the Spanish prisoner game, or the 'sick engineer' proposition? Pretty slick brains, and not much morals, eh?" He straightened up. briskly and chuckled reminiscently; he had been dangerously near preaching or sentiment, awkward things. "There's another game that has n't much morals,
but considerable brains, and it was a woman worked it out, too.
"Of course it's a scandalous thing sitting here and telling you gentlemen about a crook, and a woman crook at that, but brains is brains, and maybe if any one of us had the luck to be the daughter of a fence, we'd have had a different set of lights to live up to. It makes a whole lot of difference whether you 're helping mother cook the Sunday dinner or helping her to slip monogrammed spoons into the melting-pot. She had just the ideas you might expect; but that 's beside the point. Well, anyway, after she 'd grown up, she and her side-partner had a run of bad luck. On that side of the world it's always a feast or a famine, and this was one of the famine times. There was n't enough in their bank-roll to lay out much of a plant, and it 's the same there as anywhere: it takes money to make money. Besides, you 've always got to have the ready for emergencies-a quick get-away even if there's no haul.
"It was the girl that furnished the brains; she'd been doing a quiet spell of thinking, and finally she hit it. 'I 've got it,' she says to Jim, her side-partner; 'I guess you can be fixed up so 's to pass for the bug-house,' she says. He looked a bit startled, but when she unfolded some more, it sure showed up as a neat operation. He had to be crazy, so she could take out papers committing him as dangerous, he being willing in a lucid moment, so as to make it easy. He was n't enough of an actor, so she had him sit down one night beside the rum demon and stay with it. Curious enough, he Curious enough, he was n't a drinking man at all.
"You can guess how he looked the next morning. Chalk-faced 'n' hot-eyed, twitchy 'n' shaky generally, a nice dry parchment tongue, and all the symptoms of a joyous evening the night before. He was sure a ringer for a melancholic that was liable to break loose and commit anything. A lawyer drew up the commitment papers for her, the court gave a look at Jim, who nodded his head when they asked him if he was willing, -it was the only acting he had to do,-and the two sailed out with a fine set of genuine commitment papers that would stand any acid.
"Her side-partner took a Turkish bath and a dose of bromide to straighten up
while the girl was busy locating herself in one of those swell Madison Avenue boarding-houses, where it would n't be out of the way to have a private coupé with livery on the box to start out from for a drive. Then she hustled around to rent just that kind of a coupé. Finally she got what she wanted, the owner being in Europe, and the honest liveryman willing to turn an honest penny any old way, and Jim hiked out with her to one of those Broadway tailors and got an outfit of ready-made livery. She 'd insisted on having her own man on the box, being timid, as she explained to the stable-man. As a matter of fact, she was blinding the trail, so that later even the seventh son of a seventh son could n't pick it up, let alone just a plain headquarters man. The next morning the two got busy with the coupé.
"The private little coupé drew up outside of one of those solid brownstonefront houses in one of those solid brownstone streets. It looked like all the rest, except for bars half-way up the windows, and a bronze grating inside that you could see sometimes; it was one of those fancy private sanatoriums, very secretive and select. The girl disappeared inside,she'd written, making the appointment for herself, and showed the commitment papers, and then got right down to business. Then came the song and dance.
"Her husband had become dangerous, -sometimes even she could not control him; he did n't know her, and for her own life and her child's life she dared not wait, and she must place him in an institution. tution. In a lucid interval he also had agreed to this. Of course she tried to control herself, but every now and then she broke down and cried a little. They had been so happy and so devoted, it was terrible. He had consented to commitment, and now it was gone from his mind; he would be violent. The doctor was very sympathetic; he suggested that they send for him; they were used to handling cases very tactfully. The girl was overcome at the thought. 'I could n't, oh, I could n't do that! I can bring him here, -he will think it is only a social call,-and then can he not be taken in charge so that I can slip away quickly?'
"'Certainly,' said the doctor. 'All that will be necessary is for you to come to the