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The Belted Seas By Arthur Colton Characters: 16576

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04

Monson was the man's name that I came to deal with in New Orleans. He had a schooner named the Voodoo, a coast cruiser that never went further to sea than the Windwards. There was another white man on the crew, but the rest were negroes. Monson was billed already for Martinique and Trinidad, and that was why I dealt with him, and got him cheap for a short trip beyond Tobago.

Stevey Todd set out for the north to find some relatives he thought he had, but found none to his mind, and concluded he was an orphan. But he found a restaurant to his mind in South Street in New York, and there he settled himself and waited for me to come along. It's a place where seamen generally turn up sooner or later, and I told him I would come there. Monson and I set sail the third of September in the year '85.

Now, Monson was a man of great size and long yellowish hair and beard, and shy, innocent-looking eyes. It always gave me a start to look up six feet of legs and chest, and end in an expression of face which seemed about to remark that the world was a strange place, and might be wicked. The other white man and the negroes were a bad lot, and given to viciousness, but Monson ruled them with a heavy fist. He hadn't been three hours away from the river before he was banging a negro with a board, the others looking on and grinning. He was spanking him, in a way. He ran to me with tears in his eyes. "I'll throw that nigger overboard!" he shouted, dancing about, and shortly after he appeared to have forgotten the matter. I thought I should get along with him, but I thought I'd have to keep cool and calm in dealing with him. He was such a man as it seemed better to be acquainted with in a big open space where there was room for him to explode. He was apt to be either gay or outrageous, and that about any little thing. He was simple and furious and very hearty, and that all made him good company. The negroes looked murderous, and the other white man shifty and dirty, but he was a competent seaman.

Three weeks later we passed Tobago and were looking for Clyde's little island. We dropped anchor there one evening about eight o'clock. The moon was high and the sea bright. It was sixteen years since I'd seen that shore last, the night I rowed old Clyde up the inlet, and we buried his canvas bags. It was hard won enough by the old man, that money, with twenty years' dodging South American customs. We'd buried it in the middle of a triangle of three trees. I remembered how black the sea had been, and rough off shore. I remembered the black cruiser with its pennon of smoke. The inlet had been reedy, and the water there quiet, and the soil we dug in punky and wet.

I sat in the stern of the dingey now and let Monson row, which he did powerfully. His forearm was like a log of wood, the muscles coming out of it in knots. I was glad enough there was no danger to seaward, and wished I could carry Clyde's money away in a check, instead of the meal bags we had in the dingey.

We rowed along and came to the inlet. There was a lot of marsh grass and deep-growing reeds, and clear water between that stretched away inland. It made a straight line between the water reeds leading up to a triangle of three trees. There was a little white house in the middle of the triangle, with two lit windows.

I says: "Monson! Somebody's squatted on it!"

"What!" he says.

Somebody was singing in the house. Monson looked around from his rowing, and found it very funny to his mind, for he laughed with a roar, and the singing stopped short.

"Turn into the reeds!" I says, and we crouched there in the boat.

"It's just where the house is," I says, "or it was. There wasn't any house then."

Monson shook with laughter though he kept it quiet, and I don't know what pleased him. It would have pleased me then to see him dead, I was that savage for the people in the house. One spot on a mean little island, and they'd squatted on it! Yet it was plain enough, for the inlet led up to the three trees, which seemed to invite a man to do there whatever he had planned to do.

"Stuff 'em up their chimney," says Monson. "Tip the hut into the creek. That joke's on them, ain't it?"

I didn't see how the joke was on them.

"Why, I never knew an Injy islander to dig a cellar," he says: "They lie on the ground and get ague. Course, they might dig a hole."

The door of the little house was closed, when we came soft along the muddy shore and crept up to the window. There were five men inside, around a table, leaning forward, whispering together and drinking aguardiente. That's what Kid Sadler on the Hebe Maitland used to call "affectionate water." They were small men, but fierce-looking and black-eyed, and they appeared as if they were talking state secrets, or each explaining his special brand of crime. Monson roared out and struck the door with his fist, and they disappeared. Three of them went under the table.

Monson had to bend his head to enter, and his shaggy hair pressed along the ceiling. He pulled some by their legs from under the table, and one from a bench in a dark corner by the hair, whom he left suddenly, for it was a woman, and the two others he hauled from a closet.

"Bring us some more!" he shouted in Spanish, laughing uproariously. "Aguardiente! Hoorah!"

I don't know, or forget, how he quieted them, but pretty soon we were seven men about the table, and the woman was serving us with "affectionate water." One of them, with the woman, was owner of the house, and the others, it seemed, lived across the island. They had heard Monson's laugh, and afterward, hearing and seeing nothing more, they'd taken it to be ghosts and were afraid. They were fierce-looking little men, but pleasant enough and simple-minded. "Doubtless," they said, "the senores were distinguished persons, who had come on a ship and would buy tobacco." We arranged that the four, who lived across the island, should come back in the morning with their tobacco. So the four went away affectionate with aguardiente, and we were left alone with the fifth. His name was Pedronez and his wife's Lucina. Then I asked how long they'd lived there.

"One year, six months," he says, counting on his fingers.

"Build the house?"

"Si, senor. A noble house! A miracle!"

"Ever dig a hole here?"

"A hole! But why a hole? In the ground of the noble house! Ah, no! By no means!"

Monson roared again, to the fright of Pedronez and Lucina, who flattened herself against the wall. He went out and brought in the spade, and the bags. I guarded the door, and Monson dug where I pointed in the hard trodden earth of the floor. Pedronez and Lucina backed into corners and chattered crazy. They seemed to think the hole was for them, and Monson meant to bury them in it, which had as reasonable a look as anything.

Clyde's money was there still, lying no more than two feet from where Pedronez and Lucina had walked over it eighteen months, grubbing out a poor living. The brown bags were all rotted away and the coin was sticky with clay. I laid a handful on the table, and told Pedronez to buy the tobacco of the others in the morning, but I didn't suppose he would. It seemed a hard sort of joke played by luck on the little Windward Islander, Clyde's money lying there so long, twenty-four inches from the soles of his feet. I remember how Pedronez clutched his throat and shrieked after us into the night. He had shiny black eyes and skin wrinkled about the mouth, and Lucina was draggled-looking. When we were out of the inlet we could hear him yelling, and I had an idea he and Lucina took to fighting to ease up their minds.

We came under the dark of the ship's side. One of the negroes leaned over above us, and Monson told him to turn in, so short that he scuttled away with a grunt. We heaved the stuff aboard, and took it below, and stowed the whole four meal bags under my bunk. We got up sail before daybreak and slipped away while the stars were still shining.

Now, I took Monson to be a simple man, though sudden in action, and a man with an open mind, and sure to blow up with anything it was charged with, and in that way safe, as not having the gifts to deceive. I don't say the estimate was all gone wrong, but I'd say a

man may act so simple as to take in a cleverer man than me. He came to me the next day and took me down below, acting mysterious, and he put on an expression that was like a full moon trying to look like a horse trader, which wasn't a success. Then he jerked his beard, and looked embarrassed.

"Why," he says, "it's this way. I think I'll have half that pile, don't you see?"

I says: "What?"

I felt like an empty meal bag with surprise. Then I says, "Of course I was meaning to make you a present, Captain."

"No," he says. "That's not it. It's this way. The niggers is so tricky, they'd drop you overboard, tied to a chunk of iron, if I told 'em they might, don't you see? And if I don't tell them they might, seems as if I ought to have half. Because," he says, "they'd love to do it, because they're that way, those niggers, and it seems that way, as if I'd ought to have half, don't it?"

"Why don't you take it all?" I says, sarcastic and mad.

"Why?" he says, looking like a full moon that was shocked. "No! That wouldn't be fair, don't you see?"

I kept still a while, and then I thought maybe there'd be a way or two out, and I spoke mild.

"There's some reason in it, when you put it that way."

"That's right," he says, and acted joyful and free. "It's that way;" and he went above, and I heard him banging the negroes, likely for the wickedness they were capable of. I sat on my bunk and wondered why a man like me was always having trouble.

Then I took a lantern and went exploring down in the hold of the ship, which was pretty much empty of cargo, and foul, and smelt as if things had rotted there a hundred years. There were barrels and boxes and old canvas, and heaps of scrap iron, and some lead pipe, and coils of bad rope. Afterward I came on deck, and had supper and talked with Monson. He kept nudging me now and then, and saying, "It's that way;" and me answering, "There's reason in it, when it's put that way."

About nine o'clock I went below. By ten Monson and all the negroes were asleep, except two with the other white man on watch. I waited an hour, and then took a saw and a lantern, and crept from the cabin down the ladder to the hold. The sea was easy, though moving some, and slapping the ship's sides and the hold was full of loud echoes, smelling bad, and very black beyond the space of lantern light, a slimy cold place, and full of sudden noises. I worked till far in the morning, sawing lead pipe into thin sections of maybe an eighth of an inch thick, and thinking about Monson and whether he was deep or not. I thought he was right about the negroes, but I thought Monson wasn't deep, but simple by nature. It was the same as when one small boy says to another, "You give me your jackknife and I won't tell anybody to lick you." That gives him a sense of good morals that's comfortable inside him.

I carried up maybe thirty pounds of lead pipe in eighth-inch sections, and emptied out two of the bags, and shovelled in the lead pipe. I put in enough sticky coin on top to cover it well, and the rest I put some in the other two bags, but most in a leather satchel under some clothes. Then I tied up the bags and shoved them under the bunk, with the lead pipe ones in front. Eighth inch sections of lead pipe aren't so different from gold coin, so long as they're in a meal bag with the proper deceptiveness on top. Then I turned in and went to sleep.

In the morning I went to Monson and said, as glum as I could, that I guessed he'd do as he liked, and as to the negroes dropping me overboard he was probably right. Then he acted shy and timid. He followed me back to my cabin, and stood around like he was part ashamed and part confused, kicking his heels together nervous, and smoothing his hair.

"Why," he said, "you see, it's this way. I think I'll take 'em now."

Then he fished out the two front bags, opened them, squinted in, tied them up, and walked off. I sort of gaped after him, and sat down on my bunk, and wondered why a man like me should have that kind of trouble, and how soon Monson would take to fooling with his bags, and find out he owned so much lead pipe. But I heard him banging one of the negroes, and judged he was cheerful yet. I went up on deck and lay down on some cordage. Monson left the deck soon after.

I'd calculated on the bags staying under my bunk till we came to New Orleans, thinking to pass off the two that were doctored on Monson in a hurry, and then to get out of reach hot-footed. I calculated now that, as soon as he found his bags had been doctored, he'd mention it candid and loud, and meanwhile I might as well get my gun in working shape for trouble. Maybe I might make a bargain with the shifty-looking white man, and organize an argument as to which should be dropped overboard, Monson or me. But I hadn't got to the point, when Monson came lounging up the gangway, still acting apologetic. I judged maybe he'd stowed away his bags without digging into them. I says:

"Let bygones be, Captain," and he says, "That's right! It's that way."

It was a remarkable thing how friendly and kind we got, hoping there was no hard feeling.

That day the wind rose to a gale and the sea went wild. It kept Monson on deck night and day for four days. It kept us in a boiling pot, and on the fifth we entered the mouth of the Mississippi. Then Monson went down to sleep, and he hadn't waked when we anchored off the levee at New Orleans, which was six o'clock in the evening. By eight I was on a train going north, with a new trunk in the baggage car.

I've never happened to see Monson since. I guess he was contented. When I opened the bags, one of them was mainly full of eighth-inch sections of lead pipe.

Maybe he'd heard me go down to the hold in the first place, but probably he found first his lead pipe at the time he left me on the deck, and then he'd changed things a bit more to his ideas of what was right, bearing in mind the natural wickedness of the negroes. He didn't appear to have noticed that some of the stuff was stowed in my leather satchel, but he got nearly a third of Clyde's savings.

I came to New York and I walked along South Street, thinking of the day, twenty years back, when I first walked along South Street, cocky and green. Then I came toward the slip where the Hebe Maitland had lain that day, and where I'd looked at her and said, "Now, there's a ship." I thought of Clyde and that odd talk in the cabin of the Hebe Maitland, where all my deep-sea goings began. And I looked up and I says, "Now, there's a ship!"

The prow of her came up to the sidewalk, and the bowsprit stretched over the street, pointing at a house on the other side that was a restaurant by its sign. The Annalee was the ship's name in gilt lettering, and the clean lines of her and her way of lying in the water would give you joy. I walked alongside her on the dock, and I went across the street to look at her that way, and stood in front of the restaurant. And there I sniffed around a bit, and there I smelt hot waffles. "It's a tasty smell," I says. "Smells like Stevey Todd," and I went into the restaurant, and there was Stevey Todd. "Stevey," I says, "if you'll give me some hot waffles and honey, I'll buy that ship out there if she's buyable." And Stevey Todd gave me hot waffles and honey, and I bought the Annalee.

It might be thought, and some would say so, that the trouble I had with Monson came of Clyde's money being unclean, as not got honestly, but through dodging South American customs, and I'm free to admit it was sticky when I dug it up. But it's never acted other than respectable since that time. I never agreed with Clyde in argument, more than did Stevey Todd. A man falls in with various folks by sea and land, and he finds many that are made up of ill-fitting parts. Clyde was an odd man and a bold one, though old and dry. Monson I took for a loud and joyful one, simple and open in his mind, and violent in his habits and free of language, and yet he acted to me both secret and moderate, and I guess I mistook him.

Stevey Todd and I went to sea again in the coasting trade, and mainly to the south, and saw the coasts and parts we knew in the Hebe Maitland days. So I passed several years more.

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