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The Belted Seas By Arthur Colton Characters: 12577

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Most ships trading round the Horn to the West Coast in those days would take a charter on the Gulf Stream to clean them well, on account of carrying guano. The Helen Mar carried no guano, and charged freightage accordingly for being clean. Drygoods she'd brought out from New York, linens, cottons, tinware, shoes, and an outfit of furniture for a Chilian millionaire's house, including a half-dozen baby carriages, and a consignment of silk stockings and patent medicines. Now she was going back, expecting to pick up a cargo of rubber and cocoa and what not, along the West Coast. Captain Goodwin was master, and it happened he was short of hands, including his cook. He hired Stevey Todd for cook, and shipped the rest of us willing enough. It was in October as I recollect it, and sometime in November when we came to lie in the harbour of the city of Portate.

Portate is about seven hundred miles below the equator, and has a harbour at the mouth of a river called the Jiron, and even in those days it was an important place, as being at the end of a pass over the Cordilleras. There's a railroad up the pass now, and I hear the city has trolleys and electric lights, but at that time it hadn't much excitement except internal rumblings and explosions, meaning it had politics and volcanoes. Most of the ships that came to anchor there belonged to one company called the "British-American Transport Company," which took most of the rubber and cocoa bark, that came over the pass on mules-trains of mules with bells on their collars. But the Helen Mar had a consignment promised her. The pack mules were due by agreement a week before, so they naturally wouldn't come for a week after. "Manana" is a word said to mean "tomorrow," but if you took it to mean "next month" you'd have a better sight on the intentions of it. That's the way of it in South America with all but the politics and the climate. The politics and the climate are like this; when they're quiet, they're asleep; and when they're not, politics are revolutions and guns, and the climate is letting off stray volcanoes and shaking up earthquakes.

But it was pleasant to be in the harbour of Portate. Everything there seemed lazy. You could lie on a bunch of sail cloth, and see the city, the sand, and the bluffs, and the valley of the Jiron up to the nearer Andes. You could look up the level river to some low hills, but what happened to the Jiron there you couldn't tell from the Helen Mar. Beyond were six peaks of the Andes, and four of them were white, and two blue-black in the distance, with little white caps of smoke over them. The biggest of the black ones was named "Sarasara," which was a nasty volcano, so a little old boatman told us.

"Si, senor! Oh, la Sarasara!"

His name was Cuco, and he sold us bananas and mangoes, and was drowned afterwards. The Sarasara was a gay bird. The mule drivers called her "The Wicked Grandmother."

It came on the 23d of November. Captain Goodwin and all the crew were gone ashore, excepting Stevey Todd and me left aboard. Sadler and Irish had been ashore several days without showing up, for I remember telling Captain Goodwin that Sadler wouldn't desert, not being a quitter, at which he didn't seem any more than satisfied. I was feeling injured too, thinking Sadler was likely to be having more happiness than he deserved, maybe setting up a centre of insurrection in Portate, and leaving me out of it. Cuco come out in his boat, putting it under the ship's side, and crying up to us to buy his mangoes.

Stevey Todd came out of the galley to tell him his mangoes were no good, so as to get up an argument, and Cuco laughed.

"Si, senor," he says, "look! Ver' good." Then he nodded towards the shore:

"La Sarasara! Oh, la Sarasara!" laughing and holding up his mangoes.

The smoke-cap over the Sarasara was blacker than usual and uncommon big it looked to me. Just then it seemed to be going up and spreading out. Stevey Todd looked over the side, and gave a grunt, and he says, "Something's a-suckin' the water out of the harbour."

Then I felt the Helen Mar tugging at her anchor, and the water was going by her like a mill race, and Cuco was gone, and on shore people were running away from the wharves and the river toward the upper town.

I saw the trees swaying, though there was no wind, and a building fell down near the water.

Then Stevey Todd whirled around and flung up his hands.

"Oh!" he says; "Oh! Oh!"

I never saw a scareder cook, for he dropped on the deck, and clapped his legs around a capstan and screamed, "Lord! Lord!"

For the whole Pacific Ocean appeared to be heaving out its chest and coming on, eighty feet high. I tied myself around another capstan, and I says, "Good-night, Tommy!"

The tidal wave broke into surf an eighth of a mile out, and came on us in a tumble of foam, hissing and roaring like a loose menagerie, and down she comes on the Helen Mar, and up goes the Helen Mar climbing through the foam. Me, I hung on to the capstan.

The next thing I knew we were shooting past the upper town, up the valley of the Jiron, and there wasn't any lower town to be seen. We were bound for the Andes. The crest of the wave was a few rods ahead, and the air was full of spray. I saw the Sarasara too, having a nice time spitting things out of her mouth, and it looked to me like she waggled her head with the fun she was having. But the Helen Mar was having no fun, nor me, nor Stevey Todd.

It was four miles the Helen Mar went in a few minutes, going slower toward the end. By-and-by she hit bottom, and keeled over against a bunch of old fruit trees on the bank of the river, and lay still, or only swayed a little, the water swashing in her hold. Right ahead were the foothills of the Cordilleras, and the gorge where the Jiron came down, and where the mule path came down beside the river. The big wave went up to the foot of the hills, and now it came back peaceful. Then it was quiet everywhere, except for the sobbing of the ebb among the tree trunks, and afterward lower down in the bed of the river. The ground rose to the foothills there, and the channel of the river lay deep below, with a sandy bank maybe twenty feet high on either side, and on the bank above the river lay the H

elen Mar, propped up by the fruit trees.

By dusk there was no water except in the river, and some pools, but there were heaps of wreckage. Stevey Todd and I got down and looked things over. Down the valley we saw pieces of the town of Portate lying along, and beyond we saw the Pacific. And Stevey Todd wiped his face on his sleeves, and he says, "Maybe that's ridiculous, and maybe it ain't" he says, "but I'd argue it."

We swabbed off the decks of the Helen Mar, and scuttled the bottom of her to let the water out. Then the next day we went down to Portate. There were a sad lot of people drowned, including Captain Goodwin and most of the crew. Sadler and Irish we didn't find, and some others, and there was a man named Pickett who wasn't drowned. He went south to Lima by-and-by.

Afterwards we did up the ship's papers, and the cash and bills in the Captain's chest, thinking them proper to go to the ship's owners. And Stevey Todd says:

"A wreck's a wreck. That river ain't three foot deep. How'd they float her out of this? You say, for I ain't made up my mind," he says, which I didn't tell him, not knowing how they'd do it.

For a few days Stevey Todd and I lived high on ship's stores, loafing and looking down the valley at the damaged city. All the river front was wrecked. Halfway up the long sloping hill the streets were sloppy, and any man that had a roof to sleep on, slept drier there than inside, but the upper city was well enough.

We woke up from sleeping on the shady side of the Helen Mar one afternoon, to hear the jingle of bells, and soon the mule train pulled up alongside, and the drivers weren't used to seeing ships in that neighbourhood. They were expecting trouble from the Helen Mar for their being two weeks late; but still, finding the Helen Mar up by the foothills looking for them, it appeared to strike them as impatient and not real ladylike. But what seemed strange to me was to see Sadler and Irish, that were taken for drowned beyond further trouble, standing in front of the mule-drivers, looking down at us, and then up at the Helen Mar, and Sadler seeming like he had a satirical poem on his mind which he was going to propagate.

I says, "No ghosteses allowed here. You go away."

"Tommy," says Sadler, and he came and anchored alongside us in the shadow of the Helen Mar, "I take it these here's the facts. Your natural respectfulness to elders was shocked out of you, and you ain't got over it."

"Over what?"

"Why, she must've got tanked up bad," he says. "She must have been full up and corked before she'd ever have come prancin' up here. My! my! It's turrible when a decent ship gets an appetite for alcohol. Here she lies! Shame and propriety forgotten! Immodestly exposed to grinnin' heathens!"

"You let the Helen Mar alone," I says pretty mad. "She ain't so bad as drowned corpses riding mules."

Then Stevey put in cautiously, and said he'd never really made up his mind, and had doubts of it which he was ready to argue, supposing Sadler had any facts to put up as bearing on his and Irish's condition in nature.

Sadler said they had gone up the mule path expecting to climb Sarasara, but getting near the top of her, she began to act as if she disliked them, Sarasara did, and she threw rocks vicious and more than playful; so that they left her, and went on up the pass to look for the mule train. They didn't know anything had happened in Portate.

We put the mule-drivers up that night and charged them South American rates. That was the way Stevey Todd and I started keeping the Helen Mar as a hotel. Sadler and Irish didn't care for the business. They went down to Portate and got jobs with the Transport Company, but Stevey Todd and I stayed by the Helen Mar, and ran the hotel.

All the year through or nearly, the mule trains might come jingling at any day or hour, coming from inland over the pass to the sea, with the packs and thirsty drivers, who paid their bills sometimes in gum rubber and Peruvian bark. Tobacco planters stopped there too, going down to Portate. Men from the ships in the harbour came out, and carried off advertisements of the hotel, and plastered the coast with them. I saw an advertisement of the "Hotel Helen Mar" ten years after in a shipping office in San Francisco, and it read:

"Hotel Helen Mar, Portate, Peru. Mountain and Sea Breezes. Board and Lodging Good and Reasonable. Sailor's Snug Harbour. Welcome Jolly Tar. Thomas Buckingham and Stephen Todd."

That was for foreign patronage. The home advertisements were in Spanish and went up country with the mule trains. Up in the Andes they knew more about the Hotel Helen Mar than they did of the Peruvian Government. We ran the hotel to surprise South America.

It was nearly a year before we heard from the ship's owners, though we sent them the proper papers; and then a man came out, and looked at the Helen Mar, and says:

"I guess she belongs where she is. Running a hotel, are you?" and he carried off the sails and other rigging.

She was propped up at first only by the bunch of fruit trees, but by-and-by we bedded her in stones. We painted a sign across her forty feet long, but cut no doors, because a seaman won't treat a ship that way. You had to climb ladders to the deck.

Inside she was comfortable. No hotel piazza could equal the Helen Mar's deck on a warm night, with the old southern stars overhead, when a bunch of mule-drivers maybe would be forward talking, and I and Stevey Todd aft with a couple of Spanish planters, or an agent, or the officers of a warship maybe from England or the States. Over on the hillside lay Captain Goodwin and most of the crew of the Helen Mar, wishing us well, and close to starboard you heard all night the tinkle of the Jiron River down in its channel. It was twenty feet from the deck of the Helen Mar to the ground, and twenty feet from there to the river.

Portate was a pleasant little city in those days. It had pink-uniformed soldiery for the city guard, and a fat, warm-tempered Mayor, who used often to come up to the hotel and cool off when something had stuck a pin into his dignity that made him feverish. Stevey Todd was cook and I was manager. Business was good and the company good at the Hotel Helen Mar.

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