THE HARBOR-MASTER (5)
March 17, 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.
“You probably believe them to be razor-billed auks,” he said, contemptuously. “But they’re not; they’re great auks.”
I suggested that he permit me to examine them, and he replied, indifferently, that they were in a pen in his backyard, and that I was free to step around the house when I cared to.
I laid my rifle and pack on the veranda, and hastened off with mixed emotions, among which hope no longer predominated. No man in his senses would keep two such precious prizes in a pen in his backyard, I argued, and I was perfectly prepared to find anything from a puffin to a penguin in that pen.
I shall never forget, as long as I live, my stupor of amazement when I came to the wire-covered enclosure. Not only were there two great auks in the pen, alive, breathing, squatting in bulky majesty on their seaweed bed, but one of them was gravely contemplating two newly hatched chicks, all hill and feet, which nestled sedately at the edge of a puddle of salt-water, where some small fish were swimming.
For a while excitement blinded, nay, deafened me. I tried to realize that I was gazing upon the last individuals of an all but extinct race — the sole survivors of the gigantic auk, which, for thirty years, has been accounted an extinct creature.
I believe that I did not move muscle nor limb until the sun had gone down and the crowding darkness blurred my straining eyes and blotted the great, silent, bright-eyed birds from sight.
Even then I could not tear myself away from the enclosure; I listened to the strange, drowsy note of the male bird, the fainter responses of the female, the thin plaints of the chicks, huddling under her breast; I heard their flipper-like, embryotic wings beating sleepily as the birds stretched and yawned their beaks and clacked them, preparing for slumber.
“If you please,” came a soft voice from the door, “Mr. Halyard awaits your company to dinner.”
I dined well — or, rather, I might have enjoyed my dinner if Mr. Halyard had been eliminated; and the feast consisted exclusively of a joint of beef, the pretty nurse, and myself. She was exceedingly attractive — with a disturbing fashion of lowering her head and raising her dark eyes when spoken to.
As for Halyard, he was unspeakable, bundled up in his snuffy shawls, and making uncouth noises over his gruel. But it is only just to say that his table was worth sitting down to and his wine was sound as a bell.
“Yah!” he snapped, “I’m sick of this cursed soup — and I’ll trouble you to fill my glass—”
“It is dangerous for you to touch claret,” said the pretty nurse.
“I might as well die at dinner as anywhere,” he observed.
“Certainly,” said I, cheerfully passing the decanter, but he did not appear overpleased with the attention.
“I can’t smoke, either,” he snarled, hitching the shawls around until he looked like Richard the Third.
However, he was good enough to shove a box of cigars at me, and I took one and stood up, as the pretty nurse slipped past and vanished into the little parlor beyond.
We sat there for a while without speaking. He picked irritably at the bread-crumbs on the cloth, never glancing in my direction; and I, tired from my long foot-tour, lay back in my chair, silently appreciating one of the best cigars I ever smoked.
“Well,” he rasped out at length, “what do you think of my auks — and my veracity?”
I told him that both were unimpeachable.
“Didn’t they call me a swindler down there at your museum?” he demanded.
I admitted that I had heard the term applied. Then I made a clean breast of the matter, telling him that it was I who had doubted; that my chief, Professor Farrago, had sent me against my will, and that I was ready and glad to admit that he, Mr. Halyard, was a benefactor of the human race.
“Bosh!” he said. “What good does a confounded wobbly, bandy-toed bird do to the human race?”
But he was pleased, nevertheless; and presently he asked me, not unamiably, to punish his claret again.
“I’m done for,” he said; “good things to eat and drink are no good to me. Some day I’ll get mad enough to have a fit, and then—”
He paused to yawn.
“Then,” he continued, “that little nurse of mine will drink up my claret and go back to civilization, where people are polite.”
Somehow or other, in spite of the fact that Halyard was an old pig, what he said touched me. There was certainly not much left in life for him — as he regarded life.
“I’m going to leave her this house,” he said, arranging his shawls. “She doesn’t know it. I’m going to leave her my money, too. She doesn’t know that. Good Lord! What kind of a woman can she be to stand my bad temper for a few dollars a month!”
“I think,” said I, “that it’s partly because she’s poor, partly because she’s sorry for you.”
He looked up with a ghastly smile.
“You think she really is sorry?”
Before I could answer he went on: “I’m no mawkish sentimentalist, and I won’t allow anybody to be sorry for me — do you hear?”
“Oh, I’m not sorry for you!” I said, hastily, and, for the first time since I had seen him, he laughed heartily, without a sneer.
We both seemed to feel better after that; I drank his wine and smoked his cigars, and he appeared to take a certain grim pleasure in watching me.
“There’s no fool like a young fool,” he observed, presently.
As I had no doubt he referred to me, I paid him no attention.
After fidgeting with his shawls, he gave me an oblique scowl and asked me my age.
“Twenty-four,” I replied.
“Sort of a tadpole, aren’t you?” he said.
As I took no offence, he repeated the remark.
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”.