THE HARBOR-MASTER (4)
March 11, 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.
ALL INSTALLMENTS: 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8.
Towards sunset I came out on a sheer granite cliff where the sea-birds were whirling and clamoring, and the great breakers dashed, rolling in doublethundered reverberations on the sun-dyed, crimson sands below the rock.
Across the half-moon of beach towered another cliff, and, behind this, I saw a column of smoke rising in the still air. It certainly came from Halyard’s chimney, although the opposite cliff prevented me from seeing the house itself.
I rested a moment to refill my pipe, then resumed rifle and pack, and cautiously started to skirt the cliffs. I had descended half-way towards the beech, and was examining the cliff opposite, when something on the very top of the rock arrested my attention — a man darkly outlined against the sky. The next moment, however, I knew it could not be a man, for the object suddenly glided over the face of the cliff and slid down the sheer, smooth lace like a lizard. Before I could get a square look at it, the thing crawled into the surf — or, at least, it seemed to — but the whole episode occurred so suddenly, so unexpectedly, that I was not sure I had seen anything at all.
However, I was curious enough to climb the cliff on the land side and make my way towards the spot where I imagined I saw the man. Of course, there was nothing there — not a trace of a human being, I mean. Something had been there — a sea-otter, possibly — for the remains of a freshly killed fish lay on the rock, eaten to the back-bone and tail.
The next moment, below me, I saw the house, a freshly painted, trim, flimsy structure, modern, and very much out of harmony with the splendid savagery surrounding it. It struck a nasty, cheap note in the noble, gray monotony of headland and sea.
The descent was easy enough. I crossed the crescent beach, hard as pink marble, and found a little trodden path among the rocks, that led to the front porch of the house.
There were two people on the porch — I heard their voices before I saw them — and when I set my foot upon the wooden steps, I saw one of them, a woman, rise from her chair and step hastily towards me.
“Come back!” cried the other, a man with a smooth-shaven, deeply lined face, and a pair of angry, blue eyes; and the woman stepped back quietly, acknowledging my lifted hat with a silent inclination.
The man, who was reclining in an invalid’s rolling-chair, clapped both large, pale hands to the wheels and pushed himself out along the porch. He had shawls pinned about him, an untidy, drab-colored hat on his head, and, when he looked down at me, he scowled.
“I know who you are,” he said, in his acid voice; “you’re one of the Zoological men from Bronx Park. You look like it, anyway.”
“It is easy to recognize you from your reputation,” I replied, irritated at his discourtesy.
“Really,” he replied, with something between a sneer and a laugh, “I’m obliged for your frankness. You’re after my great auks, are you not?”
“Nothing else would have tempted me into this place,” I replied, sincerely.
“Thank Heaven for that,” he said. “Sit down a moment; you’ve interrupted us.” Then, turning to the young woman, who wore the neat gown and tiny cap of a professional nurse, he bade her resume what she had been saying. She did so, with deprecating glance at me, which made the old man sneer again.
“It happened so suddenly,” she said, in her low voice, “that I had no chance to get back. The boat was drifting in the cove; I sat in the stern, reading, both oars shipped, and the tiller swinging. Then I heard a scratching under the boat, but thought it might be seaweed — and, next moment, came those soft thumpings, like the sound of a big fish rubbing its nose against a float.”
Halyard clutched the wheels of his chair and stared at the girl in grim displeasure.
“Didn’t you know enough to be frightened?” he demanded.
“No — not then,” she said, coloring faintly; “but when, after a few moments, I looked up and saw the harbormaster running up and down the beach, I was horribly frightened.”
“Really?” said Halyard, sarcastically; “it was about time.” Then, turning to me, he rasped out: “And that young lady was obliged to row all the way to Port-of-Waves and call to Lee’s quarrymen to take her boat in.”
Completely mystified, I looked from Halyard to the girl, not in the least comprehending what all this meant.
“That will do,” said Halyard, ungraciously, which curt phrase was apparently the usual dismissal for the nurse.
She rose, and I rose, and she passed me with an inclination, stepping noiselessly into the house.
“I want beef-tea!” bawled Halyard after her; then he gave me an unamiable glance.
“I was a well-bred man,” he sneered; “I’m a Harvard graduate, too, but I live as I like, and I do what I like, and I say what I like.”
“You certainly are not reticent,” I said, disgusted.
“Why should I be?” he rasped; “I pay that young woman for my irritability; it’s a bargain between us.”
“In your domestic affairs,” I said, “there is nothing that interests me. I came to see those auks.”
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.