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Full Online Book HomeLong StoriesThe Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 1. A Crusader And A Sign
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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 1. A Crusader And A Sign Post by :ValerieC Category :Long Stories Author :Bret Harte Date :May 2012 Read :3608

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The Crusade Of The Excelsior: A Novel - Part 1. In Bonds - Chapter 1. A Crusader And A Sign


It was the 4th of August, 1854, off Cape Corrientes. Morning was breaking over a heavy sea, and the closely-reefed topsails of a barque that ran before it bearing down upon the faint outline of the Mexican coast. Already the white peak of Colima showed, ghost-like, in the east; already the long sweep of the Pacific was gathering strength and volume as it swept uninterruptedly into the opening Gulf of California.

As the cold light increased, it could be seen that the vessel showed evidence of a long voyage and stress of weather. She had lost one of her spars, and her starboard davits rolled emptily. Nevertheless, her rigging was taut and ship-shape, and her decks scrupulously clean. Indeed, in that uncertain light, the only moving figure besides the two motionless shadows at the wheel was engaged in scrubbing the quarter-deck--which, with its grated settees and stacked camp-chairs, seemed to indicate the presence of cabin passengers. For the barque Excelsior, from New York to San Francisco, had discharged the bulk of her cargo at Callao, and had extended her liberal cabin accommodation to swell the feverish Californian immigration, still in its height.

Suddenly there was a slight commotion on deck. An order, issued from some invisible depth of the cabin, was so unexpected that it had to be repeated sternly and peremptorily. A bustle forward ensued, two or three other shadows sprang up by the bulwarks, then the two men bent over the wheel, the Excelsior slowly swung round on her heel, and, with a parting salutation to the coast, bore away to the northwest and the open sea again.

"What's up now?" growled one of the men at the wheel to his companion, as they slowly eased up on the helm.

"'Tain't the skipper's, for he's drunk as a biled owl, and ain't stirred out of his bunk since eight bells," said the other. "It's the first mate's orders; but, I reckon, it's the Senor's idea."

"Then we ain't goin' on to Mazatlan?"

"Not this trip, I reckon," said the third mate, joining them.


The third mate turned and pointed to leeward. The line of coast had already sunk enough to permit the faint silhouette of a trail of smoke to define the horizon line of sky.

"Steamer goin' in, eh?"

"Yes. D'ye see--it might be too hot, in there!"

"Then the jig's up?"

"No. Suthin's to be done--north of St. Lucas. Hush!"

He made a gesture of silence, although the conversation, since he had joined them, had been carried on in a continuous whisper. A figure, evidently a passenger, had appeared on deck. One or two of the foreign-looking crew who had drawn near the group, with a certain undue and irregular familiarity, now slunk away again.

The passenger was a shrewd, exact, rectangular-looking man, who had evidently never entirely succumbed to the freedom of the sea either in his appearance or habits. He had not even his sea legs yet; and as the barque, with the full swell of the Pacific now on her weather bow, was plunging uncomfortably, he was fain to cling to the stanchions. This did not, however, prevent him from noticing the change in her position, and captiously resenting it.

"Look here--you; I say! What have we turned round for? We're going away from the land! Ain't we going on to Mazatlan?"

The two men at the wheel looked silently forward, with that exasperating unconcern of any landsman's interest peculiar to marine officials. The passenger turned impatiently to the third mate.

"But this ain't right, you know. It was understood that we were going into Mazatlan. I've got business there."

"My orders, sir," said the mate curtly, turning away.

The practical passenger had been observant enough of sea-going rules to recognize that this reason was final, and that it was equally futile to demand an interview with the captain when that gentleman was not visibly on duty. He turned angrily to the cabin again.

"You look disturbed, my dear Banks. I trust you haven't slept badly," said a very gentle voice from the quarter-rail near him; "or, perhaps, the ship's going about has upset you. It's a little rougher on this tack."

"That's just it," returned Banks sharply. "We HAVE gone about, and we're not going into Mazatlan at all. It's scandalous! I'll speak to the captain--I'll complain to the consignees--I've got business at Mazatlan--I expect letters--I"--

"Business, my dear fellow?" continued the voice, in gentle protest. "You'll have time for business when you get to San Francisco. And as for letters--they'll follow you there soon enough. Come over here, my boy, and say hail and farewell to the Mexican coast--to the land of Montezuma and Pizarro. Come here and see the mountain range from which Balboa feasted his eyes on the broad Pacific. Come!"

The speaker, though apparently more at his ease at sea, was in dress and appearance fully as unnautical as Banks. As he leaned over the railing, his white, close-fitting trousers and small patent-leather boots gave him a jaunty, half-military air, which continued up to the second button of his black frock-coat, and then so utterly changed its character that it was doubtful if a greater contrast could be conceived than that offered by the widely spread lapels of his coat, his low turned-down collar, loosely knotted silk handkerchief, and the round, smooth-shaven, gentle, pacific face above them. His straight long black hair, shining as if from recent immersion, was tucked carefully behind his ears, and hung in a heavy, even, semicircular fringe around the back of his neck where his tall hat usually rested, as if to leave his forehead meekly exposed to celestial criticism. When he had joined the ship at Callao, his fellow-passengers, rashly trusting to the momentary suggestion of his legs on the gang-plank, had pronounced him military; meeting him later at dinner, they had regarded the mild Methodistic contour of his breast and shoulders above the table, and entertained the wild idea of asking him to evoke a blessing. To complete the confusion of his appearance, he was called "Senor" Perkins, for no other reason, apparently, than his occasional, but masterful, use of the Spanish vernacular.

Steadying himself by one of the quarter stanchions, he waved his right hand oratorically towards the sinking coast.

"Look at it, sir. One of the finest countries that ever came from the hand of the Creator; a land overflowing with milk and honey; containing, sir, in that one mountain range, the products of the three zones--and yet the abode of the oppressed and down-trodden; the land of faction, superstition, tyranny, and political revolution."

"That's all very well," said Banks irritably, "but Mazatlan is a well-known commercial port, and has English and American correspondents. There's a branch of that Boston firm--Potter, Potts & Potter--there. The new line of steamers is going to stop there regularly."

Senor Perkins' soft black eyes fell for an instant, as if accidentally, on the third mate, but the next moment he laughed, and, throwing back his head, inhaled, with evident relish, a long breath of the sharp, salt air.

"Ah!" he said enthusiastically, "THAT'S better than all the business you can pick up along a malarious coast. Open your mouth and try to take in the free breath of the glorious North Pacific. Ah! isn't it glorious?"

"Where's the captain?" said Banks, with despairing irritation. "I want to see him."

"The captain," said Senor Perkins, with a bland, forgiving smile and a slight lowering of his voice, "is, I fear, suffering from an accident of hospitality, and keeps his state-room. The captain is a good fellow," continued Perkins, with gentle enthusiasm; "a good sailor and careful navigator, and exceedingly attentive to his passengers. I shall certainly propose getting up some testimonial for him."

"But if he's shut up in his state-room, who's giving the orders?" began Banks angrily.

Senor Perkins put up a small, well-kept hand deprecatingly.

"Really, my dear boy, I suppose the captain cannot be omnipresent. Some discretion must be left to the other officers. They probably know his ideas and what is to be done better than we do. You business men trouble yourselves too much about these things. You should take them more philosophically. For my part I always confide myself trustingly to these people. I enter a ship or railroad car with perfect faith. I say to myself, 'This captain, or this conductor, is a responsible man, selected with a view to my safety and comfort; he understands how to procure that safety and that comfort better than I do. He worries himself; he spends hours and nights of vigil to look after me and carry me to my destination. Why should I worry myself, who can only assist him by passive obedience? Why'--" But here he was interrupted by a headlong plunge of the Excelsior, a feminine shriek that was half a laugh, the rapid patter of small feet and sweep of flying skirts down the slanting deck, and the sudden and violent contact of a pretty figure.

The next moment he had forgotten his philosophy, and his companion his business. Both flew to the assistance of the fair intruder, who, albeit the least injured of the trio, clung breathlessly to the bulwarks.

"Miss Keene!" ejaculated both gentlemen.

"Oh dear! I beg your pardon," said the young lady, reddening, with a naive mingling of hilarity and embarrassment. "But it seemed so stuffy in the cabin, and it seemed so easy to get out on deck and pull myself up by the railings; and just as I got up here, I suddenly seemed to be sliding down the roof of a house."

"And now that you're here, your courage should be rewarded," said the Senor, gallantly assisting her to a settee, which he lashed securely. "You are perfectly safe now," he added, holding the end of the rope in his hand to allow a slight sliding movement of the seat as the vessel rolled. "And here is a glorious spectacle for you. Look! the sun is just rising."

The young girl glanced over the vast expanse before her with sparkling eyes and a suddenly awakened fancy that checked her embarrassed smile, and fixed her pretty, parted lips with wonder. The level rays of the rising sun striking the white crests of the lifted waves had suffused the whole ocean with a pinkish opal color: the darker parts of each wave seemed broken into facets instead of curves, and glittered sharply. The sea seemed to have lost its fluidity, and become vitreous; so much so, that it was difficult to believe that the waves which splintered across the Excelsior's bow did not fall upon her deck with the ring of shattered glass.

"Sindbad's Valley of Diamonds!" said the young girl, in an awed whisper.

"It's a cross sea in the Gulf of California, so the mate says," said Banks practically; "but I don't see why we" . . .

"The Gulf of California?" repeated the young girl, while a slight shade of disappointment passed over her bright face; "are we then so near"--

"Not the California you mean, my dear young lady," broke in Senor Perkins, "but the old peninsula of California, which is still a part of Mexico. It terminates in Cape St. Lucas, a hundred miles from here, but it's still a far cry to San Francisco, which is in Upper California. But I fancy you don't seem as anxious as our friend Mr. Banks to get to your journey's end," he added, with paternal blandness.

The look of relief which had passed over Miss Keene's truthful face gave way to one of slight embarrassment.

"It hasn't seemed long," she said hastily; and then added, as if to turn the conversation, "What is this peninsula? I remember it on our map at school."

"It's not of much account," interrupted Banks positively. "There ain't a place on it you ever heard of. It's a kind of wilderness."

"I differ from you," said Senor Perkins gravely. "There are, I have been told, some old Mexican settlements along the coast, and there is no reason why the country shouldn't be fruitful. But you may have a chance to judge for yourself," he continued beamingly. "Since we are not going into Mazatlan, we may drop in at some of those places for water. It's all on our way, and we shall save the three days we would have lost had we touched Mazatlan. That," he added, answering an impatient interrogation in Banks' eye, "at least, is the captain's idea, I reckon." He laughed, and went on still gayly,--"But what's the use of anticipating? Why should we spoil any little surprise that our gallant captain may have in store for us? I've been trying to convert this business man to my easy philosophy, Miss Keene, but he is incorrigible; he is actually lamenting his lost chance of hearing the latest news at Mazatlan, and getting the latest market quotations, instead of offering a thanksgiving for another uninterrupted day of freedom in this glorious air."

With a half humorous extravagance he unloosed his already loose necktie, turned his Byron collar still lower, and squared his shoulders ostentatiously to the sea breeze. Accustomed as his two companions were to his habitually extravagant speech, it did not at that moment seem inconsistent with the intoxicating morning air and the exhilaration of sky and wave. A breath of awakening and resurrection moved over the face of the waters; recreation and new-born life sparkled everywhere; the past night seemed forever buried in the vast and exundating sea. The reefs had been shaken out, and every sail set to catch the steadier breeze of the day; and as the quickening sun shone upon the dazzling canvas that seemed to envelop them, they felt as if wrapped in the purity of a baptismal robe.

Nevertheless, Miss Keene's eyes occasionally wandered from the charming prospect towards the companion-ladder. Presently she became ominously and ostentatiously interested in the view again, and at the same moment a young man's head and shoulders appeared above the companionway. With a bound he was on the slanting deck, moving with the agility and adaptability of youth, and approached the group. He was quite surprised to find Miss Keene there so early, and Miss Keene was equally surprised at his appearance, notwithstanding the phenomenon had occurred with singular regularity for the last three weeks. The two spectators of this gentle comedy received it as they had often received it before, with a mixture of apparent astonishment and patronizing unconsciousness, and, after a decent interval, moved away together, leaving the young people alone.

The hesitancy and awkwardness which usually followed the first moments of their charming isolation were this morning more than usually prolonged.

"It seems we are not going into Mazatlan, after all," said Miss Keene at last, without lifting her conscious eyes from the sea.

"No," returned the young fellow quickly. "I heard all about it down below, and we had quite an indignation meeting over it. I believe Mrs. Markham wanted to head a deputation to wait upon the captain in his berth. It seems that the first officer, or whosoever is running the ship, has concluded we've lost too much time already, and we're going to strike a bee-line for Cape St. Lucas, and give Mazatlan the go-by. We'll save four days by it. I suppose it don't make any difference to you, Miss Keene, does it?"

"I? Oh, no!" said the girl hastily.

"I'M rather sorry," he said hesitatingly.

"Indeed. Are you tired of the ship?" she asked saucily.

"No," he replied bluntly; "but it would have given us four more days together--four more days before we separated."

He stopped, with a heightened color. There was a moment of silence, and the voices of Senor Perkins and Mr. Banks in political discussion on the other side of the deck came faintly. Miss Keene laughed.

"We are a long way from San Francisco yet, and you may think differently."

"Never!" he said, impulsively.

He had drawn closer to her, as if to emphasize his speech. She cast a quick glance across the deck towards the two disputants, and drew herself gently away.

"Do you know," she said suddenly, with a charming smile which robbed the act of its sting, "I sometimes wonder if I am REALLY going to San Francisco. I don't know how it is; but, somehow, I never can SEE myself there."

"I wish you did, for I'M going there," he replied boldly.

Without appearing to notice the significance of his speech, she continued gravely:

"I have been so strongly impressed with this feeling at times that it makes me quite superstitious. When we had that terrible storm after we left Callao, I thought it meant that--that we were all going down, and we should never be heard of again."

"As long as we all went together," he said, "I don't know that it would be the worst thing that could happen. I remember that storm, Miss Keene. And I remember"--He stopped timidly.

"What?" she replied, raising her smiling eyes for the first time to his earnest face.

"I remember sitting up all night near your state-room, with a cork jacket and lots of things I'd fixed up for you, and thinking I'd die before I trusted you alone in the boat to those rascally Lascars of the crew."

"But how would you have prevented it?" asked Miss Keene, with a compassionate and half-maternal amusement.

"I don't know exactly," he said, coloring; "but I'd have lashed you to some spar, or made a raft, and got you ashore on some island."

"And poor Mrs. Markham and Mrs. Brimmer--you'd have left them to the boats and the Lascars, I suppose?" smiled Miss Keene.

"Oh, somebody would have looked after Mrs. Markham; and Mrs. Brimmer wouldn't have gone with anybody that wasn't well connected. But what's the use of talking?" he added ruefully. "Nothing has happened, and nothing is going to happen. You will see yourself in San Francisco, even if you don't see ME there. You're going to a rich brother, Miss Keene, who has friends of his own, and who won't care to know a poor fellow whom you tolerated on the passage, but who don't move in Mrs. Brimmer's set, and whom Mr. Banks wouldn't indorse commercially."

"Ah, you don't know my brother, Mr. Brace."

"Nor do you, very well, Miss Keene. You were saying, only last night, you hardly remembered him."

The young girl sighed.

"I was very young when he went West," she said explanatorily; "but I dare say I shall recall him. What I meant is, that he will be very glad to know that I have been so happy here, and he will like all those who have made me so."

"Then you have been happy?"

"Yes; very." She had withdrawn her eyes, and was looking vaguely towards the companion-way. "Everybody has been so kind to me."

"And you are grateful to all?"



The ship gave a sudden forward plunge. Miss Keene involuntarily clutched the air with her little hand, that had been resting on the settee between them, and the young man caught it in his own.

"Equally?" he repeated, with an assumed playfulness that half veiled his anxiety. "Equally--from the beaming Senor Perkins, who smiles on all, to the gloomy Mr. Hurlstone, who smiles on no one?"

She quickly withdrew her hand, and rose. "I smell the breakfast," she said laughingly. "Don't be horrified, Mr. Brace, but I'm very hungry." She laid the hand she had withdrawn lightly on his arm. "Now help me down to the cabin."

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