In Search of The Unknown

Robert W. Chambers


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.

“Oh, come,” said I, “there’s no use in trying to irritate me. I see through you; a row acts like a cocktail on you—but you’ll have to stick to gruel in my company.”

“I call that impudence!” he rasped out, wrathfully.

“I don’t care what you call it,” I replied, undisturbed, “I am not going to be worried by you. Anyway,” I ended, “it is my opinion that you could be very good company if you chose.”

The proposition appeared to take his breath away—at least, he said nothing more; and I finished my cigar in peace and tossed the stump into a saucer.

“Now,” said I, “what price do you set upon your birds, Mr. Halyard?”

“Ten thousand dollars,” he snapped, with an evil smile.

“You will receive a certified check when the birds are delivered,” I said, quietly.

“You don’t mean to say you agree to that outrageous bargain—and I won’t take a cent less, either—Good Lord!—haven’t you any spirit left?” he cried, half rising from his pile of shawls.

His piteous eagerness for a dispute sent me into laughter impossible to control, and he eyed me, mouth open, animosity rising visibly.

Then he seized the wheels of his invalid chair and trundled away, too mad to speak; and I strolled out into the parlor, still laughing. The pretty nurse was there, sewing under a hanging lamp.

“If I am not indiscreet—” I began.

“Indiscretion is the better part of valor,” said she, dropping her head but raising her eyes.

So I sat down with a frivolous smile peculiar to the appreciated.

“Doubtless, ‘ said I, “you are hemming a ‘kerchief.”

“Doubtless I am not,” she said; “this is a night-cap for Mr. Halyard.”

A mental vision of Halyard in a night-cap, very mad, nearly set me laughing again.

“Like the King of Yvetot, he wears his crown in bed,” I said, flippantly.

“The King of Yvetot might have made that remark,” she observed, re-threading her needle.

It is unpleasant to be reproved. How large and red and hot a man’s ears feel. 

To cool them, I strolled out to the porch; and, after a while, the pretty nurse came out, too, and sat down in a chair not far away. She probably regretted her lost opportunity to be flirted with.

“I have so little company—it is a great relief to see somebody from the world,” she said. “If you can be agreeable, I wish you would.”

The idea that she had come out to see me was so agreeable that I remained speechless until she said: “Do tell me what people are doing in New York.”

So I seated myself on the steps and talked about the portion of the world inhabited by me, while she sat sewing in the dull light that straggled out from the parlor windows. 

She had a certain coquetry of her own, using the usual methods with an individuality that was certainly fetching. For instance, when she lost her needle—and, another time, when we both, on hands and knees, hunted for her thimble.

However, directions for these pastimes may be found in contemporary classics.

I was as entertaining as I could be—perhaps not quite as entertaining as a young man usually thinks he is. However, we got on very well together until I asked her tenderly who the harbor-master might be, whom they all discussed so mysteriously.

“I do not care to speak about it,” she said, with a primness of which I had not suspected her capable.

Of course I could scarcely pursue the subject after that—and, indeed, I did not intend to—so I began to tell her how I fancied I had seen a man on the cliff that afternoon, and how the creature slid over the sheer rock like a snake.

To my amazement, she asked me to kindly discontinue the account of my adventures, in an icy tone, which left no room for protest.

“It was only a sea-otter,” I tried to explain, thinking perhaps she did not care for snake stories. 

But the explanation did not appear to interest her, and I was mortified to observe that my impression upon her was anything but pleasant.

“She doesn’t seem to like me and my stories,” thought I, “but she is too young, perhaps, to appreciate them.”

So I forgave her—for she was even prettier than I had thought her at first— and I took my leave, saying that Mr. Halyard would doubtless direct me to my room. Halyard was in his library, cleaning a revolver, when I entered.

“Your room is next to mine, “ he said; “pleasant dreams, and kindly refrain from snoring.”

“May I venture an absurd hope that you will do the same!” I replied, politely.

That maddened him, so I hastily withdrew.

I had been asleep for at least two hours when a movement by my bedside and a light in my eyes awakened me. I sat bolt upright in bed, blinking at Halyard, who, clad in a dressing-gown and wearing a night-cap, had wheeled himself into my room with one hand, while with the other he solemnly waved a candle over my head.

“I’m so cursed lonely,” he said—“come, there’s a good fellow—talk to me in your own original, impudent way.’’

I objected strenuously, but he looked so worn and thin, so lonely and bad-tempered, so lovelessly grotesque, that I got out of bed and passed a spongeful of cold water over my head.

Then I returned to bed and propped the pillows up for a back-rest, ready to quarrel with him if it might bring some little pleasure into his morbid existence.

“No,” he said, amiably, “I’m too worried to quarrel, but I’m much obliged for your kindly offer. I want to tell you something.”

“What?” I asked, suspiciously.

“I want to ask you if you ever saw a man with gills like a fish?”

“Gills?” I repeated.

“Yes, gills! Did you?”

“No,” I replied, angrily, “and neither did you.”

“No, I never did,” he said, in a curiously placid voice, “but there’s a man with gills like a fish who lives in the ocean out there. Oh, you needn’t look that way—nobody ever thinks of doubting my word, and I tell you that there’s a man— or a thing that looks like a man—as big as you are, too—all slate-colored—with nasty
red gills like a fish!—and I’ve a witness to prove what I say!”

“Who?” I asked, sarcastically.

“The witness? My nurse.”

“Oh! She saw a slate-colored man with gills?”

“Yes, she did. So did Francis Lee, superintendent of the Mica Quarry Company at Port-of-Waves. So have a dozen men who work in the quarry. Oh, you needn’t laugh, young man. It’s an old story here, and anybody can tell you about the harbor-master.”

“The harbor-master!” I exclaimed.

“Yes, that slate-colored thing with gills, that looks like a man—and—by Heaven! is a man—that’s the harbor-master. Ask any quarryman at Port-of-Waves what it is that comes purring around their boats at the wharf and unties painters and changes the mooring of every cat-boat in the cove at night! Ask Francis Lee what it
was he saw running and leaping up and down the shoal at sunset last Friday! Ask anybody along the coast what sort of a thing moves about the cliffs like a man and slides over them into the sea like an otter—”

“I saw it do that!” I burst out.

“Oh, did you? Well, what was it?”

Something kept me silent, although a dozen explanations flew to my lips.

After a pause, Halyard said: “You saw the harbormaster, that’s what you saw!”

I looked at him without a word.

“Don’t mistake me,” he said, pettishly; “I don’t think that the harbor- master is a spirit or a sprite or a hobgoblin, or any sort of damned rot. Neither do I believe it to be an optical illusion.”

“What do you think it is?” I asked.

“I think it’s a man—I think it’s a branch of the human race—that’s what I think. Let me tell you something: the deepest spot in the Atlantic Ocean is a trifle over five miles deep—and I suppose you know that this place lies only about a quarter of a mile off this headland. The British exploring vessel, Gull,
Captain Marotte, discovered and sounded it, I believe. Anyway, it’s there, and it’s my belief that the profound depths are inhabited by the remnants of the last race of amphibious human beings!”

This was childish; I did not bother to reply.

“Believe it or not, as you will,” he said, angrily; “one thing I know, and that is this: the harbor-master has taken to hanging around my cove, and he is attracted by my nurse! I won’t have it! I’ll blow his fishy gills out of his head if I ever get a shot at him! I don’t care whether it’s homicide or not—anyway, it’s a new kind of
murder and it attracts me!”

I gazed at him incredulously, but he was working himself into a passion, and I did not choose to say what I thought.

“Yes, this slate-colored thing with gills goes purring and grinning and spitting about after my nurse—when she walks, when she rows, when she sits on the beach! Gad! It drives me nearly frantic. I won’t tolerate it, I tell you!”

“No,” said I, “I wouldn’t either.” And I rolled over in bed convulsed with laughter.

The next moment I heard my door slam. I smothered my mirth and rose to close the window, for the land-wind blew cold from the forest, and a drizzle was sweeping the carpet as far as my bed.

That luminous glare which sometimes lingers after the stars go out, threw a trembling, nebulous radiance over sand and cove. I heard the seething currents under the breakers’ softened thunder—louder than I ever heard it.  Then, as I closed my window, lingering for a last look at the crawling tide, I saw a man standing, ankle-deep, in the surf, all alone there in the night. But—was it a man? For the figure suddenly began running over the beach on all fours like a beetle, waving its limbs like feelers. Before I could throw open the window again it darted into the surf, and, when I leaned out into the chilling drizzle, I saw nothing save the flat ebb crawling on the coast—I heard nothing save the purring of bubbles on seething sands.

Go to Chapter Five......