THE HARBOR-MASTER (3)
March 9, 2023
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master,” a 1906 story (People’s Magazine; a variant of “The Harbour Master,” 1899 in Ainslee’s Magazine), here at HILOBROW. The story, which forms the first four chapters of the 1904 novel/collection In Search of the Unknown, was a direct influence on H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” (w. 1931, p. 1936)… and it anticipates The Creature from the Black Lagoon too.
Long before we came in sight of the ocean I smelled it; the fresh, salt aroma stole into my senses, drowsy with the heated odor of pine and hemlock, and I sat up, peering ahead into the dusky sea of pines.
Fresher and fresher came the wind from the sea, in puffs, in mild, sweet breezes, in steady, freshening currents, blowing the feathery crowns of the pines, setting the balsam’s blue tufts rocking.
Lee wandered back over the long line of flats, balancing himself nonchalantly as the cars swung around a sharp curve, where water dripped from a newly propped sluice that suddenly emerged from the depths of the forest to run parallel to the railroad track.
“Built it this spring,” he said, surveying his handiwork, which seemed to undulate as the cars swept past. “It runs to the cove — or ought to—” He stopped abruptly with a thoughtful glance at me.
“So you’re going over to Halyard’s?” he continued, as though answering a question asked by himself.
“You’ve never been there — of course?”
“No,” I said, “and I’m not likely to go again.”
I would have told him why I was going if I had not already begun to feel ashamed of my idiotic errand.
“I guess you’re going to look at those birds of his,” continued Lee, placidly.
“I guess I am,” I said, sulkily, glancing askance to see whether he was smiling.
But he only asked me, quite seriously, whether a great auk was really a very rare bird; and I told him that the last one ever seen had been found dead off Labrador in January, 1870. Then I asked him whether these birds of Halyard’s were really great auks, and he replied, somewhat indifferently, that he supposed they were — at least, nobody had ever before seen such birds near Port-of-Waves.
“There’s something else,” he said, running a pine-sliver through his pipe-stem — “something that interests us all here more than auks, big or little. I suppose I might as well speak of it, as you are bound to hear about it sooner or later.”
He hesitated, and I could see that he was embarrassed, searching for the exact words to convey his meaning.
“If,” said I, “you have anything in this region more important to science than the great auk, I should be very glad to know about it.”
Perhaps there was the faintest tinge of sarcasm in my voice, for he shot a sharp glance at me and then turned slightly. After a moment, however, he put his pipe into his pocket, laid hold of the brake with both hands, vaulted to his perch aloft, and glanced down at me.
“Did you ever hear of the harbor-master?” he asked, maliciously.
“Which harbor-master?” I inquired.
“You’ll know before long,” he observed, with a satisfied glance into perspective.
This rather extraordinary observation puzzled me. I waited for him to resume, and, as he did not, I asked him what he meant.
“If I knew,” he said, “I’d tell you. But, come to think of it, I’d be a fool to go into details with a scientific man. You’ll hear about the harbor-master — perhaps you will see the harbor-master. In that event I should be glad to converse with you on the subject.”
I could not help laughing at his prim and precise manner, and, after a moment, he also laughed, saying: “It hurts a man’s vanity to know he knows a thing that somebody else knows he doesn’t know. I’m damned if I say another word about the harbor-master until you’ve been to Halyard’s!”
“A harbor-master,” I persisted, “is an official who superintends the mooring of ships — isn’t he?”
But he refused to be tempted into conversation, and we lounged silently on the lumber until a long, thin whistle from the locomotive and a rush of stinging salt-wind brought us to our feet. Through the trees I could see the bluish-black ocean, stretching out beyond black headlands to meet the clouds; a great wind was roaring among the trees as the train slowly came to a stand-still on the edge of the primeval forest.
Lee jumped to the ground and aided me with my rifle and pack, and then the train began to back away along a curved side-track which, Lee said, led to the mica-pit and company stores.
“Now what will you do?” he asked, pleasantly. “I can give you a good dinner and a decent bed to-night if you like — and I’m sure Mrs. Lee would be very glad to have you stop with us as long as you choose.”
I thanked him, but said that I was anxious to reach Halyard’s before dark, and he very kindly led me along the cliffs and pointed out the path.
“This man Halyard,” he said, “is an invalid. He lives at a cove called Black Harbor, and all his truck goes through to him over the company’s road. We receive it here, and send a pack-mule through once a month. I’ve met him; he’s a bad-tempered hypochondriac, a cynic at heart, and a man whose word is never doubted. If he says he has a great auk, you may be satisfied he has.”
My heart was beating with excitement at the prospect; I looked out across the wooded headlands and tangled stretches of dune and hollow, trying to realize what it might mean to me, to Professor Farrago, to the world, if I should lead back to New York a live auk.
“He’s a crank,” said Lee; “frankly, I don’t like him. If you find it unpleasant there, come back to us.”
“Does Halyard live alone?” I asked.
“Yes — except for a professional trained nurse — poor thing!”
“No,” said Lee, disgustedly.
Presently he gave me a peculiar glance; hesitated, and finally said: “Ask Halyard to tell you about his nurse and — the harbor-master. Good-bye — I’m due at the quarry. Come and stay with us whenever you care to; you will find a welcome at Port-of-Waves.”
We shook hands and parted on the cliff, he turning back into the forest along the railway, I starting northward, pack slung, rifle over my shoulder. Once I met a group of quarrymen, faces burned brick-red, scarred hands swinging as they walked. And, as I passed them with a nod, turning, I saw that they also had turned to look after me, and I caught a word or two of their conversation, whirled back to me on the sea-wind.
They were speaking of the harbor-master.
RADIUM AGE PROTO-SF: “Radium Age” is Josh Glenn’s name for the nascent sf genre’s c. 1900–1935 era, a period which saw the discovery of radioactivity, i.e., the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. More info here.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire” | Francis Stevens’s “Friend Island” | George C. Wallis’s “The Last Days of Earth” | Frank L. Pollock’s “Finis” | A. Merritt’s The Moon Pool | E. Nesbit’s “The Third Drug” | George Allan England’s “The Thing from — ‘Outside'” | Booth Tarkington’s “The Veiled Feminists of Atlantis” | H.G. Wells’s “The Land Ironclads” | J.D. Beresford’s The Hampdenshire Wonder | Valery Bryusov’s “The Republic of the Southern Cross” | Algernon Blackwood’s “A Victim of Higher Space” | A. Merritt’s “The People of the Pit” | Max Brand’s The Untamed | Julian Huxley’s “The Tissue-Culture King” | Clare Winger Harris’s “A Runaway World” | Francis Stevens’s “Thomas Dunbar” | George Gurdjieff’s “Beelzebub’s Tales” | Robert W. Chambers’s “The Harbor-Master” | Mary E. Wilkins Freeman’s “The Hall Bedroom” | Clare Winger Harris’s “The Fifth Dimension” | Francis Stevens’s “Behind the Curtain” | more to come.