[from The Chalk Town Train & Other Tales: The Harper Chronicles, Volume One]
It was in late autumn 1891 that Harper found himself lodging in the old port city of Charleston for a dismal, cold, rain-drenched month. He was covering two separate and lengthy court proceedings for The Challenge, meanwhile conducting varied historical researches, some for his work and some for his personal interest. On weekends he would ride up to McClellanville to stay with friends at their bungalow at the edge of the vast marsh. For hours at a time, despite the bleak weather, he would find restorative solitude walking, alone, where the dunes defied the surf . . . to their ultimate demise. He would amble the melancholy mile through the marsh along an old dike road from the house to the ocean. Then, up and down the shoreline he would comb through shell-rich mud and haggard forests of dead oak trunks and limbs stabbed deep into the sand-victims of a hurricane some years past. Usually, his only companions besides the gulls and pelicans were the somberly waving crews of shrimp boats that occasionally floated past, several hundred yards offshore.
Walking toward him down the water’s edge from the village, however, late one foggy Saturday afternoon, were three teenage boys, sons of local fishers.
“Did you see the wreck?” asked one without introduction as they drew near the reporter. The look of surprise on Harper’s face was ample response.
“A collier,” informed another lad. “Went down within the hour. Five o’ the crew made it to shore. They’re bein’ looked after at Murphy’s place up in the inlet.”
“An’ if there’s any valuables washin’ up, they’ll be looked after by us,” asserted the third smugly.
“Where did this happen?”
“Why, right ’long here, I reckon, not more’n three miles out. They was huggin’ the coast mighty close. Good thing for them fellers they was, too. If they hadn’t been able to make out the shoreline through this mist, they mighta lost their bearin’s an’ rowed straight out to sea.”
“Are they hurt?”
“Naw. They all got in a lifeboat. Pulled in outa the fog, right up to Murphy’s dock. Lucky dogs!”
The journalist’s surprised expression darkened to one of consternation. He had been loitering near this spot rather more than an hour.
“I heard no horn or bell,” he remarked.
“That’s ’cause it happened so fast. Turned turtle. They said she was loaded poorly. Coal shifted.” Harper’s puzzlement deepened. What is the likelihood of a crew member-even one-getting off in a boat when a ship turns turtle?
“Are you sure they came up to the inlet from this direction?”
“Tha’s what they said. Reckon they oughta know.”
“What was the ship’s name?”
The youths looked at one another, none of them quite sure of repeating the odd word with which they all were unfamiliar.
“Started with a G,” said one.
“Some kinda wild animal, I think,” said another.
“‘Gas somethin’. Somethin’ like Gasket or Gaslight.”
“Only it was an animal, I’m purty sure.”
“Not Gazelle,” ventured the reporter.
The boys clapped their hands and nodded. “Tha’s it!”
Harper was dumbfounded. A collier named Gazelle? A clipper of old he could understand displaying such a title that boasted of speed. One of the newer class of sail-laden vessels they called “windjammers,” likewise. A transatlantic passenger liner. Even a whaler, possibly. But a wallowing, dirty coal carrier? A name like that would make her crew laughingstocks at every port they entered. He must see these men.
“Has Murphy got his stew on yet?”
“Oh, yeah. Already fed ’em some vittles. They’s plenty wrung out, nigh sick-all of ’em.”
A bowl of Murphy’s salty, hot Low Country salmagundi with steaming coffee had been on the chilled beachcomber’s mind. What better pretense to introduce himself unimposingly into the company of these interesting survivors? He hastened up the shore.
Murphy, the swarthy, black-bearded wharf proprietor, did not wait for Harper to find a place on a bench at a crude, dank table before blurting the news to him. “Shipwreck survivors.” Murphy nodded toward a cluster of men whose worn, woolen garb identified them all plainly as deep-water roustabouts. They were surrounded by inquisitive McClellanvillians.
“Ship bellied-up,” Murphy summarized. “They’s all that made it off. Folk are out lookin’ for their shipmates up and down the beach. I sent word to the lifeboat station. Course, that’s ten miles. If they find anybody at all”-his fierce old eyes genuinely saddened-“it’ll be corpses. You here for some salmagundi?”
Harper, methodically digesting all that was happening in this tiny, weather-battered hamlet, blinked distractedly at the proprietor.
“What’ll it be?” Murphy prompted, impatient to return to his tragic castaways.
“Your fine stew-yes. And black coffee.”
As Harper listened in, slowly savoring his bowl of hearty seafood, little was added to the basic facts that already had been confirmed. Indeed, it was the coastal dwellers who did almost all the talking, speculating how the sluggish, bobbing collier must have started out badly and reached a crisis after the cargo, shifting more and more with each passing hour at sea, produced an irreversible list.
“What a horrible way to die,” muttered one, and an affirming symphony of grunts and sighs spread across the room.
Only one of the strangers was identified by full name. Thomas Hanratty was the apparent leader of the surviving band, although his nautical rating was unclear. Definitely not the captain-that unfortunate ostensibly having gone down with the Gazelle-Hanratty was assumed by everyone at Murphy’s wharf to be the ship’s mate, or one of the junior mates. The other four survivors were accepted as ordinary seamen. None was in a loquacious frame of mind; perhaps none but Hanratty could speak fluent English; all must be in shock.
This much they did reveal: Their collier-an antiquated, leaky wooden hulk that had served for half a century-had been southbound, Baltimore to Havana, with a crew of nineteen. She had been rolling heavily; Hanratty suspected untold quantities of sea water had gotten in through defective main deck hatches.
Why was she so close inshore? This question, one of the very first that had occurred to Harper, was not lost on the McClellanville fishermen, who pressed it to Hanratty. On a course such as the one stated, a vessel at this latitude well might be plying the deep as far as two hundred miles out to sea.
“Ah, we’s blown west’ard in a gale, all day yesterday an’ last evenin’. Skipper decided to keep to the coast till ’e could get a clear read from the stars, soon’s this weather broke.”
All the while they thus deliberated, Murphy lavished tankards of brown ale on his forlorn but illustrious guests and refilled their wooden bowls. Their faces, at first stern and forbidding, gradually mellowed. One even managed to crack a small joke, despite the men’s physical ordeal and what must have been very deep grief at the loss of their shipmates.
To Harper, little was to be deduced from the sailors’ appearance. They clearly were veteran seafarers; their skin texture and darkening affirmed the incessant effects of wind and sun. One small detail, however, caught his eye. He noticed several times, just at table level, an inch of gold watch chain clipped to the waistband of Hanratty as the sailor shifted on his bench. Among professional landsmen such an item was common enough. Among ill-paid, bedraggled seamen it was quite out of place. Even if a sailor received such a prize as a family gift, Harper doubted he would take it on a long voyage at the risk of theft and loss.
“Can you tell me what time it’s getting to be?” Harper asked loudly, of no one in particular.
Thomas Hanratty proudly took the gold piece in his hands, joining several others who moved without thinking to oblige the reporter’s request. Engraved on the round cover, Harper clearly could read the large initials: AJP.
“That’s a beautiful piece,” Harper remarked to the seaman, smiling. “Would I be terribly rude to ask where you bought it?”
Murphy’s beer had lowered the man’s guard. “T’was a present. Boston Seafarer’s Society, ’87. I was able to do a deed, save some lives. This was my reward.”
Ardent toasts went up among the marshland denizens. The looks on the faces of Hanratty’s companions ranged from mild astonishment to sneering half smiles; they said nothing.
Murphy threw more wood into his potbellied stove. For another hour, his wharf house filled with coastal inhabitants from miles around, as word spread of the calamity. Packed close together, they hung on every word any of the honored derelicts uttered. But to their disappointment the mariners-lavished with ale and brandy-rather than talkative became increasingly morose, until one by one the fisher folk turned their attention away.
The whole time, the visiting reporter sat at his bench, evidently mesmerized by some invisible object on the table before him. He was turning the initials AJP over and over in his mind. Hanratty’s explanation was laughably bogus . . . but where might the truth lie? Realistically, the initials could signify any of thousands of former owners of an aberrant pocket watch, from any country or continent on earth. Yet, Harper had an uncanny feeling they told a story much closer to this desolate settlement on the South Carolina coast. The combination of letters seemed familiar. To something he had come across in his readings very recently-he could not finger just what-he suspected they bore a connection.
“We need to be movin’,” Hanratty announced abruptly. Murphy’s face fell in dismay at the prospect of losing his noteworthy guests.
“But you’ll need to report to the fellas at the lifeboat post,” the proprietor ventured, frowning at his wall clock. “They shoulda showed up by now.”
“Aye, likely they’re out scourin’ the surf-as we should be,” said Hanratty. “We’ll go downshore. The wind and sea, from the sound of it, are in that direction. Probably we’ll encounter your lifesavers. If not, we’ll pick our way to Charleston, make our report there.”
“In the dark?” Murphy was bewildered.
“Can’t rest till we deal with it,” Hanratty replied with finality. The reporter stirred. He did not want these men to depart just now. “They’ll cheat you out of your money, if you aren’t alert.”
Hanratty coughed and sidled across to sit at Harper’s table. “An’ just what might be this ’ere ‘distressed seaman’s compensation’?”
“In South Carolina, we have a shipwreck fund for just such calamities as this. It’s appropriated by the state legislature, no less. Every survivor by law is entitled to $150-but very few, I understand, have collected. The resource isn’t commonly known among mariners outside our waters. If you and your men report your ship’s loss and place your claim, that’s $750 that must be drawn from the appropriation. If you report the sinking but don’t know to request your claim . . . then that’s $750 that goes into the pockets of certain port officials.”
The refugees appeared incensed at the thought that money they were entitled to might go to someone else, while the local fishers looked at Harper incredulously because they had not heard of the magnanimous fund Harper had just invented.
“An’ who should we be seein’ about this money that rightfully be our’n?” asked the leader.
“You can inquire at the agent’s desk when you make your report. But you’ll only be sent to various offices here and there, in Charleston and possibly all the way to Columbia. You might be kept in limbo for weeks, and still never receive your money.” Harper paused. His eyes gleamed. “But I know Larrimore, the superintendent. I can get him for you, if you’d like.”
“For a share of our money, I reckon,” Hanratty said sourly.
The journalist shook his head indignantly. “I want none of your compensation. I have to be back down in the city tomorrow afternoon anyway. If you can wait till then, I’ll find old Larrimore for you and send him up here with your dues straightaway.”
“There’s bunks here,” offered Murphy cheerfully. “You’ll be warm an’ dry, with plenty o’ grub an’ drink.”
The leader smiled roughly to them both. “Why, thankee kindly. We’ll be much obliged.”
Harper departed out the back, sick at heart that he’d felt compelled to lie in order to obtain a delay. He wanted a glimpse at the deliverance boat. It had swung round in the tide, and he saw the name Gazelle was painted-neither freshly nor crudely, but with indubitable authenticity-across the stern.
At the home of his hosts, the journalist apologized that he was needed in Charleston that very evening, but would return in time for breakfast and church the next morning. It would be a somewhat precarious journey, he knew, for the shore road already was cast in murky twilight, and it was almost completely unmarked by lights except for the occasional fisher’s shanty. His gracious friends insisted he take their horse, a reliable old beast that knew the way by instinct, and they gave him a lantern.
Two hours later, numbed, damp and weary, he arrived at the port authority building and knocked loudly until Norris, the night man, came to a side door. Acquainted with the name of the respected chronicler from Columbia, Norris let him sit down to the great ledger of shipping activities. He even granted the reporter access to the filings of recent unofficial bulletins that had come by wire and cable from ports on all shores of the North and South Atlantic.
It was the kind of work Harper relished. Left alone by candlelight, he pored over entry after entry, dispatch after dispatch. So weary of mind was he, and so engrossed in visions of voyages in progress hither and yon-the ship classes, the cargoes, the many destinations both grand and bohemian-that he continually had to force himself to refocus on the facts at hand, and on the suspicions that had inspired this untimely investigation. It was past eleven when he thrilled at his first confirmation, midnight when he came upon the second. Together, they provided the framework of a fantastic revelation, a collusion of happenchance and human plotting. There was not just the single lost vessel off the Carolina coast. There were two.
About 3 the following afternoon, Harper stood outside Murphy’s on the coast road under a breaking, wind-blown sky of pale blue and ragged gray, when he was approached by Hanratty and one of his men. “If’n ye don’t mind, mate, my boys ’n’ me are right anxious to get on down to the city. Maybe ye can just tell us where to find this man Larrimore, and we’ll see to the business ourselves.”
Just at that moment, Harper spied a party on horseback trotting up from the south. He counted six men, followed by a two-horse cart.
“Actually,” the reporter said, “I’ve sent for Larrimore in person. He’s coming now. You can state your case right here.”
Hanratty appeared startled and uneasy. Several individuals, including the rest of his seamen and Murphy the proprietor, had come out from the wharf house to see who was riding up the road. As the horsemen drew near, silver badges on their lapels immediately caught the eyes of all who watched. They dismounted quickly, and a little man in a dark suit and derby hat stepped down from the cart. Harper moved to greet him.
“This is Mate Hanratty,” he introduced, “and these”-gesturing round-“are his four crew members. Gentlemen, meet Superintendent Larrimore. And this, I believe, will be our local sheriff.”
The stocky, stone-faced lawman at the forefront said nothing but studied the assembly at the wharf. He ultimately nodded to Murphy, whom he knew well. Larrimore wasted no time.
“Can you tell us, Mr. Hanratty, anything of the yacht Bee, outbound from Georgetown in the last fortnight, or the whereabouts of her owner, Mr. Arnold Proctor?”
All five of the shipwrecked sailors stood frozen with trepidation, but Hanratty’s face was an impenetrable mask. He riveted his eyes on the port official.
“We’d know nothin’ o’ that, sir.”
“Can you tell us the true whereabouts of the whaling ship Gazelle, eighteen days out of Boston?”
The faces of the seamen whitened in pure horror. Hanratty simply shook his head.
“Let’s have a look inside that watch cover,” Harper commanded. Before Hanratty could contrive a distraction or utter a word of protest, the sheriff had snatched the valuable from his pocket and sprung the casing. He squinted at the small lettering, then read the damning inscription aloud: “to my loving arnie, america’s ‘admiral of the ocean sea’-helen.”
One of the other surviving seamen sprang forward and gripped the superintendent’s sleeve. “I had no part in it, I swear! I was only tryin’ to get ’way from that hell ship wi’ me life!”
“Shut up!” barked one of his cronies. Hanratty glared at the confessor with murderous anger. Another sailor moved his right arm across his waist; a knife flashed; the would-be informant shrieked in pain-but before the weapon could do fatal work, big Murphy collared the man who wielded it and smashed his face into a thick oaken post, knocking him senseless. An instant later, the whole circle of men from the wharf, including Harper and the innocent locals, found themselves ringed by deputies pointing cocked firearms.
“Let’s get him inside,” Harper said, gripping the injured seafarer’s arm to stanch the bleeding of an ugly slash.
“Get them all inside,” ordered Larrimore. “I want to sort this out.”
The four healthy seamen were herded to a corner table of Murphy’s establishment and ordered to sit still, while the fifth, in a state of trauma from his attack, was bandaged beside the stove. Larrimore, an intellectual, owl-faced little man, sat down before the prisoners with the deportment of a judge, while the law enforcers deployed all round the room with their formidable arsenal-more than ample to deter any thought of escape.
Larrimore looked from one to the other of the seamen, only to be greeted by stoney silence.
“Tell us what happened to the Bee,” he said to Hanratty.
The man stared him evenly in the eye.
“Perhaps,” suggested Harper, “they would prefer that I speak for them.”
“We done nothin’ to that blasted yacht!” shouted one of the sailors.
“No,” Harper said. “I don’t believe you did.” He turned to Larrimore. “The Bee, as the records indicate, was a seventy-foot yacht owned by one Arnold J. Proctor, sportsman and scion of a leading Philadelphia industrial family. I’m convinced she foundered. We know Mr. Proctor had sailed down to Georgetown with his wife and young son to winter at their coastal plantation, arriving last month. We know that after settling his family in, he sailed from Georgetown Harbor alone on the third or fourth-which is to say, about twelve days ago. He was bound back up the coast to either Wilmington or Beaufort, North Carolina, to visit business relations before cold weather set in. We know that as of this date he has arrived at neither port, nor has he returned home. He has not yet been reported missing, but the authorities, I understand, are on the verge of doing so.”
Larrimore nodded. “My belief is that the Bee went down in bad weather, either off Hatteras or farther up, off the Banks.”
“We know that for a fact,” moaned the knifing victim.
“How do you know it?” growled the sheriff.
The man did not answer. Harper pointed to the gold watch which the lawman held in his hand. “They know because Proctor survived the sinking and told them. He was picked up by their ship, the Gazelle, bound for Cape Horn and the Pacific on a two-year whaling expedition.”
It was obvious from the sullen looks of the derelicts, coupled with their disinclination to deny Harper’s narrative, that he had hit upon the truth.
“They realized soon enough that here was a casualty of some value. They could tell by his clothes, his watch. He undoubtedly kept much of his money on his person, as well. When they discovered that. . . .” He wheeled suddenly upon the wounded man. “When you discovered that . . . there must have been quite a row over what to do about it.”
The man went pale and waved frantically toward Hanratty. “It was his scheme. Him ’n’ the mate.” The others hissed for him to be silent, but he plunged ahead. “They wanted to kill the bloke, divide ’is money. Fool musta had three thousan’ in banknotes, tryin’ to dry ’it all out on a little piece o’ deck. They knew the cap’n would never allow it, so they gathered up most o’ the sailors and harpooners, plotted a mut’ny. Got us all tangled up in it.”
His emotions welled up in his throat and stifled his speech, but he gulped and continued. “There was more money lyin’ on that deck, free for the takin’, than the whole lot of us woulda realized from two years o’ whalin’-fightin’ storms, fightin’ the Horn, strippin’ blubber day ’n’ night. The cap’n didn’t even put up a fight. There was only five or six men would stand with ’im.”
“So those you killed,” Larrimore said grimly.
“We killed nobody!” rasped Hanratty-his first statement toward his own defense.
“Near enough,” scoffed his betrayer. “Threw ’em alive in the brine. The rich man, too. We was fifty miles offshore, at least. What chance did they have?”
The room fell silent for many minutes. Landsman and seaman alike pondered abhorrently the agonizing last minutes of those who’d been left to die, thrashing in gray, hostile seas that spread to every horizon.
“I suppose,” said the reporter at last, “you then realized you had a problem: What to do with the captainless Gazelle?”
The bandaged mariner snifled. “Thought at first we’d sail ’er to South America, try to sell ’er. But then we’s ’fraid the ’thorities down there might get wind o’ somethin’ ’fore we ’rived. Some wanted to just sail ’er up on a deserted beach and make our way inland, every man for ’imself, but on reflectin’, that didn’t seem like such a smart plan, either. We finally decided to scuttle ’er an’ come ashore in the boats-but still, some o’ the boys thought that was too risky. Scuttlin’ a whaler ain’t as simple as you might think. You got to make sure she’s a goner ’fore you haul ’way; if she lingers on . . . who’s gonna risk ’is soul goin’ back down in there to finish the job? An’ if ya jus’ leave ’er an’ she’s found an’ towed into port, then there’s hell to pay.
“So these fellers persuaded us to put ’em loose, nice ’n’ easy like, right off Savannah. That was a likely place. A sailor with money can make connections on the Savannah docks soon enough, no questions asked.
“We did as they asked. There was six of us left aboard. We sailed roun’ out there in the Atlantic three or four days, tryin’ to get up the nerve to sink the bloody ship. Yesterday, we passed by off Charleston and we seen the fog rollin’ in, so we steered north’ard a bit, right close to shore, and did the deed. Put off the one remainin’ lifeboat on the port side an’ flooded the ship’s hold. But our man Mabry didn’t make it up in time. Musta got tangled up in some ropes, bein’ in such a hurry. So it was just the five of us. We’d taken a bead on this ’ere wharf, and this is where we steered.”
It perturbed Harper to learn there had been so little method to their madness. These felons had simply yielded to a great temptation without fully predicting the aftereffects, then grappled almost farcically with the consequences.
At least they’d had the presence of mind to retain the ship’s real name-plainly visible on the lifeboat-in their fabrication to the locals.
“Why in the world did you identify the Gazelle as a collier?” the journalist wanted to know.
The informant turned bitterly to his boss. “Well, Mr. All-Knowin’ Hanratty ’ere, first thing ’e tells ’em when they pulls us up on the wharf is that our ship turned turtle an’ sank. So that forces us to make up the next lie right quick, ’fore we has time to discuss it all the way through. What kinda ship’s likely to turn turtle? A whaler, ridin’ high, fresh outa home port without an ounce o’ blubber in the hold? Not likely. Nobody’d fall for that. So he mulls it over an’ decides we come off a coal ship. A coal ship!” He shook his head ruefully. “Never been on a sooty collier in my life. Never ’tend to set foot on one.”
“Tomorrow,” predicted Larrimore gravely, “you’ll all wish you were aboard a collier, far over the horizon.”
The great irony of the case, from Harper’s standpoint, came next day. The miscreants were hauled into Charleston before nightfall Sunday, and Harper spent much of the night and all morning obliging the inquiries and paperwork of Larrimore and the county authorities. Meanwhile, two of the city’s morning dailies got the story into their Monday editions. Correspondents quickly telegraphed the news to Harper’s capital city rivals in time for afternoon publication in Columbia. Harper’s own belated account in The Challenge, published Tuesday, naturally contained far greater detail and superior accuracy, but those were inconsiderable achievements, in the estimation of most readers.
The reporter who had unraveled an extraordinary tale of mutiny and murder off the South Carolina coast lost the scoop.