MORAN OF THE LADY LETTY
by Frank Norris
Captain Joseph Hodgson
UNITED STATES LIFE SAVING SERVICE
This is to be a story of a battle, at least one murder, and several
sudden deaths. For that reason it begins with a pink tea and among the
mingled odors of many delicate
perfumes and the hale, frank smell of
Caroline Testout roses.
There had been a great number of debutantes "coming out" that season in
San Francisco by means of afternoon teas, pink, lavender, and otherwise.
This particular tea was intended to celebrate
the fact that Josie
Herrick had arrived at that time of her life when she was to wear her
hair high and her gowns long, and to have a "day" of her own quite
distinct from that of her mother.
Ross Wilbur presented himself at the Herrick house on Pacific Avenue
much too early upon the afternoon of Miss Herrick's tea. As he made,
his way up the canvased stairs he was aware of a terrifying array of
millinery and a disquieting staccato chatter
voices in the
parlors and reception-rooms on either side of the hallway. A single high
hat in the room that had been set apart for the men's use confirmed him
in his suspicions.
"Might have known it would be a hen party till six, anyhow," he
muttered, swinging out of his overcoat. "Bet I don't know one girl in
twenty down there now--all mamma's friends at this hour, and
sisters, and Jo's school-teachers and governesses and
music-teachers, and I don't know what all."
When he went down he found it precisely
as he expected. He went up to
Miss Herrick, where she stood receiving with her mother and two of the
other girls, and allowed them to chaff him on his forlornness.
"Maybe I seem at my ease," said Ross Wilbur to them, "but really I am
very much frightened. I'm going to run away as soon as it is decently
possible, even before, unless you feed me."
"I believe you had luncheon
not two hours ago," said Miss Herrick. "Come
along, though, and I'll give you some chocolate, and perhaps, if you're
good, a stuffed olive. I got them just because I knew you liked them. I
ought to stay here and receive, so I can't look after you for long."
The two fought their way through the crowded
rooms to the
luncheon-table, and Miss Herrick got Wilbur his chocolate and his
stuffed olives. They sat down and talked in a window recess
moment, Wilbur toeing-in in absurd
fashion as he tried to make a lap for
"I thought," said Miss Herrick, "that you were going on the Ridgeways'
yachting party this afternoon. Mrs. Ridgeway said she was counting on
you. They are going out with the 'Petrel.'"
"She didn't count above a hundred, though," answered Wilbur. "I got
your bid first, so I regretted the yachting party; and I guess I'd have
regretted it anyhow," and he grinned at her over his cup.
"Nice man," she said--adding on the instant, "I must go now, Ross."
"Wait till I eat the sugar out of my cup," complained Wilbur. "Tell
me," he added, scraping vigorously
at the bottom of the cup with the
inadequate spoon; "tell me, you're going to the hoe-down to-night?"
"If you mean the Assembly, yes, I am."
"Will you give me the first and last?"
"I'll give you the first, and you can ask for the last then."
"Let's put it down; I know you'll forget it." Wilbur drew a couple of
cards from his case.
"Programmes are not good form any more," said Miss Herrick.
"Forgetting a dance is worse."
He made out the cards, writing
on the one he kept for himself, "First
"I must go back now," said Miss Herrick, getting up.
"In that case I shall run--I'm afraid of girls."
"It's a pity about you."
"I am; one girl, I don't say, but girl in the aggregate
like this," and
his chin toward the thronged parlors. "It un-mans me."
"Good-by, until to-night, about--?"
"About nine, then."
Ross Wilbur made his adieu to Mrs. Herrick and the girls who were
receiving, and took himself away. As he came out of the house and stood
for a moment on the steps, settling his hat gingerly upon his hair so as
not to disturb
the parting, he was not by any means an ill-looking chap.
His good height
was helped out by his long coat and his high silk hat,
and there was plenty of jaw in the lower part of his face. Nor was his
answerable for his shoulders. Three years before this
time Ross Wilbur had pulled at No. 5 in his varsity boat in an Eastern
college that was not accustomed to athletic
"I wonder what I'm going to do with myself until supper time," he
muttered, as he came down the steps, feeling for the middle of his
stick. He found no immediate answer to his question. But the afternoon
was fine, and he set off to walk in the direction of the town, with a
half-formed idea of looking in at his club.
At his club he found a letter in his box from his particular chum, who
had been spending the month shooting elk in Oregon.
"Dear Old Man," it said, "will be back on the afternoon you
receive this. Will hit the town on the three o'clock boat. Get
seats for the best show going--my treat--and arrange to assimilate
nutriment at the Poodle Dog--also mine. I've got miles of talk in
me that I've got to reel off before midnight. Yours.
"I've got a stand of horns for you, Ross, that are Glory Hallelujah."
"Well, I can't go," murmured Wilbur, as he remembered the Assembly that
was to come off that night and his engaged dance with Jo Herrick. He
decided that it would be best to meet Jerry as he came off the boat and
tell him how matters stood. Then he resolved, since no one that he
knew was in the club, and the instalment of the Paris weeklies had not
arrived, that it would be amusing
to go down to the water-front and loaf
among the shipping
until it was time for Jerry's boat.
Wilbur spent an hour along the wharves, watching the great grain ships
consigned to "Cork for orders" slowly gorging themselves with whole
harvests of wheat from the San Joaquin Valley; lumber
vessels for Durban
and South African ports settling lower and lower to the water's level as
forests of pine and redwood stratified themselves along their decks and
in their holds; coal barges discharging from Nanaimo; busy little tugs
coughing and nuzzling at the flanks of the deep-sea tramps, while hay
barges and Italian whitehalls came and went at every turn. A Stockton
River boat went by, her stern wheel churning along behind, like a
huge net-reel; a tiny maelstrom of activity centred about an Alaska
Commercial Company's steamboat
that would clear for Dawson in the
No quarter of one of the most picturesque
cities in the world had more
interest for Wilbur than the water-front. In the mile or so of shipping
that stretched from the docks where the China steamships landed, down
past the ferry slips and on to Meiggs's Wharf, every maritime
in the world was represented. More than once Wilbur had talked to
the loungers of the wharves, stevedores out of work, sailors
between voyages, caulkers and ship chandlers' men looking--not too
earnestly--for jobs; so that on this occasion, when a little, undersized
fellow in dirty brown sweater
and clothes of Barbary coast cut asked
him for a match to light his pipe, Wilbur offered a cigar and passed
the time of day with him. Wilbur had not forgotten that he himself was
dressed for an afternoon function. But the incongruity of the business
what most amused him.
After a time the fellow suggested drinks. Wilbur hesitated for a moment.
It would be something to tell about, however, so, "All right, I'll drink
with you," he said.
The brown sweater
led the way to a sailors' boarding-house hard by. The
rear of the place was built upon piles over the water. But in front, on
the ground floor, was a barroom.
"Rum an' gum," announced the brown sweater, as the two came in and took
their places at the bar.
"Rum an' gum, Tuck; wattle you have, sir?"
"Oh--I don't know," hesitated Wilbur; "give me a mild Manhattan."
While the drinks were being mixed the brown sweater
attention to a fighting head-dress from the Marquesas that was hung on
the wall over the free-lunch counter
and opposite the bar. Wilbur turned
about to look at it, and remained so, his back to the barkeeper, till
the latter told them their drinks were ready.
"Well, mate, here's big blocks an' taut hawse-pipes," said the brown
"Your very good health," returned Wilbur.
The brown sweater
wiped a thin mustache
in the hollow of his palm, and
wiped that palm upon his trouser leg.
"Yessir," he continued, once more facing the Marquesas head-dress.
"Yessir, they're queer game down there."
"In the Marquesas Islands, you mean?" said Wilbur.
"Yessir, they're queer game. When they ain't tattoin' theirselves with
Scripture tex's they git from the missionaries, they're pullin' out
the hairs all over their bodies with two clam-shells. Hair by hair, y'
"Pull'n out 'er hair?" said Wilbur, wondering what was the matter with
"They think it's clever--think the women folk like it."
Wilbur had fancied that the little man had worn a brown sweater
they first met. But now, strangely
enough, he was not in the least
surprised to see it iridescent
like a pigeon's breast.
"Y' ever been down that way?" inquired the little man next.
Wilbur heard the words distinctly
enough, but somehow they refused to
fit into the right places in his brain. He pulled himself together,
"What--did--you--say?" he asked with great deliberation, biting
words. Then he noticed that he and his companion
were no longer in
the barroom, but in a little room back of it. His personality
itself. There was one Ross Wilbur--who could not make his hands go where
he wanted them, who said one word when he thought another, and whose
legs below the knee were made of solid lead. Then there was another Ross
Wilbur--Ross Wilbur, the alert, who was perfectly
clear-headed, and who
stood off to one side and watched his twin brother making a monkey
himself, without power and without even the desire of helping him.
This latter Wilbur heard the iridescentsweater
"Bust me, if y' a'n't squiffy, old man. Stand by a bit an' we'll have a
"Can't have got--return--exceptionally--and the round table--pull out
hairs wi' tu clamsh'ls," gabbled Wilbur's stupefied double; and Wilbur
the alert said to himself: "You're not drunk, Ross Wilbur, that's
certain; what could they have put in your cocktail?"
stamped twice upon the floor and a trap-door fell
away beneath Wilbur's feet like the drop of a gallows. With the eyes of
his undrugged self Wilbur had a glimpse
of water below. His elbow struck
the floor as he went down, and he fell feet first into a Whitehall boat.
He had time to observe two men at the oars and to look between the piles
that supported the house above him and catch a glimpse
of the bay and
a glint of the Contra Costa shore. He was not in the least surprised at
what had happened, and made up his mind that it would be a good idea to
lie down in the boat and go to sleep.
Suddenly--but how long after his advent
into the boat he could not
tell--his wits began to return and settle themselves, like wild birds
flocking again after a scare. Swiftly he took in the scene. The blue
waters of the bay around him, the deck of a schooner
on which he stood,
the Whitehall boat alongside, and an enormous
man with a face like
moon wrangling with his friend in the sweater--no longer
"What do you call it?" shouted the red man. "I want able seamen--I don't
figger on working
this boat with dancing masters, do I? We ain't exactly
doing quadrilles on my quarterdeck. If we don't look out we'll step on
this thing and break it. It ain't ought to be let around loose without
"Rot that," vociferated the brown sweater. "I tell you he's one of the
best sailor men on the front. If he ain't we'll forfeit
the money. Come
on, Captain Kitchell, we made show enough gettin' away as it was, and
business ain't our line. D'you sign or not? Here's the
advance note. I got to duck my nut or I'll have the patrol
"I'll sign this once," growled the other, scrawling his name on the
note; "but if this swab ain't up to sample, he'll come back by freight,
an' I'll drop in on mee dear friend Jim when we come back and give him a
reel nice time, an' you can lay to that, Billy Trim." The brown sweater
pocketed the note, went over the side, and rowed off.
Wilbur stood in the waist of a schooner
anchored in the stream
Fisherman's wharf. In the forward part of the schooner
a Chinaman in
brown duck was mixing paint. Wilbur was conscious
that he still wore his
high hat and long coat, but his stick was gone and one gray glove was
slit to the button. In front of him towered the enormous
A pungent reek of some kind of rancid fat or oil assailed his nostrils.
Over by Alcatraz a ferry-boat whistled for its slip as it elbowed its
way through the water.
Wilbur had himself fairly in hand by now. His wits were all about him;
but the situation was beyond him as yet.
"Git for'd," commanded the big man.
Wilbur drew himself up, angry in an instant. "Look here," he began,
"what's the meaning of this business? I know I've been drugged and
mishandled. I demand to be put ashore. Do you understand that?"
"Angel child," whimpered the big man. "Oh, you lilee of the vallee, you
bright an' mornin' star. I'm reely pained y'know, that your vally can't
come along, but we'll have your piano set up in the lazarette. It gives
grief, it do, to see you bein' obliged to put your lilee
white feet on this here vulgar
an' dirtee deck. We'll have the Wilton
carpet down by to-morrer, so we will, my dear. Yah-h!" he suddenly broke
out, as his rage boiled over. "Git for'd, d'ye hear! I'm captain of this
here bathtub, an' that's all you need to know for a good while to come.
I ain't generally got to tell that to a man but once; but I'll stretch
the point just for love of you, angel child. Now, then, move!"
Wilbur stood motionless--puzzled beyond expression. No experience he had
ever been through helped in this situation.
"Look here," he began, "I--"
The captain knocked him down with a blow of one enormous
fist upon the
mouth, and while he was yet stretched upon the deck kicked him savagely
in the stomach. Then he allowed him to rise, caught him by the neck and
the slack of his overcoat, and ran him forward to where a hatchway, not
two feet across, opened in the deck. Without ado, he flung him down into
the darkness below; and while Wilbur, dizzied by the fall, sat on the
floor at the foot of the vertical
companion-ladder, gazing about him
with distended eyes, there rained down upon his head, first an oilskin
coat, then a sou'wester, a pair of oilskin breeches, woolen
a plug of tobacco. Above him, down the contracted
square of the hatch,
came the bellowing of the Captain's voice: