"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

"The only joy in the world is to begin...." Cesare Pavese

Saturday, September 16, 2017

When the lights are low: The Log of the Evening Star by Alfred Noyes

"The Log of the Evening Star" (1918) is an uncanny sea story by UK poet Alfred Noyes. Like Conan Doyle's "J. Habakuk Jephson's Statement," it clearly seems inspired by the Marie Celeste's fate.


We were sitting in the porch of a low white bungalow with masses of purple bougainvillea embowering its eaves. A ruby-throated humming-bird, with green wings, flickered around it. The tall palms and the sea were whispering together. Over the water, the West was beginning to fill with that Californian sunset which is the most mysterious in the world, for one is conscious that it is the fringe of what Europeans call the East, and that, looking westward across the Pacific, our faces are turned towards the dusky myriads of Asia. All along the Californian coast there is a tang of incense in the air, as befits that silent orchard of the gods where dawn and sunset meet and intermingle; and, though it is probably caused by some gardener, burning the dead leaves of the eucalyptus trees, one might well believe that one breathed the scent of the joss-sticks, wafted across the Pacific, from the land of paper lanterns.

A Japanese servant, in a white duck suit, marched like a ghostly little soldier across the lawn. The great hills behind us quietly turned to amethysts. The lights of Los Angeles ten miles away to the north began to spring out like stars in that amazing air beloved of the astronomer; and the evening star itself, over the huge slow breakers crumbling into lilac-colored foam, looked bright enough to be a companion of the city lights.

"I should like to show you the log of the Evening Star," said my visitor, who was none other than Moreton Fitch, president of the insurance company of San Francisco. "I think it may interest you as evidence that our business is not without its touches of romance. I don't mean what you mean," he added cheerfully, as I looked up smiling. "The Evening Star was a schooner running between San Francisco and Tahiti and various other places in the South Seas. She was insured in our company. One April, she was reported overdue. After a search had been made, she was posted as lost in the maritime exchanges. There was no clue to what had happened, and we paid the insurance money, believing that she had foundered with all hands.

"Two months later, we got word from Tahiti that the Evening Star had been found drifting about in a dead calm, with all sails set, but not a soul aboard. Everything was in perfect order, except that the ship's cat was lying dead in the bows, baked to a bit of sea-weed by the sun. Otherwise, there wasn't the slightest trace of any trouble. The tables below were laid for a meal and there was plenty of water aboard."

"Were any of the boats missing?"

"No. She carried only three boats and all were there. When she was discovered, two of the boats were on deck as usual; and the third was towing astern. None of the men has been heard of from that day to this. The amazing part of it was not only the absence of anything that would account for the disappearance of the crew, but the clear evidence that they had been intending to stay, in the fact that the tables were laid for a meal, and then abandoned. Besides, where had they gone, and how? There are no magic carpets, even in the South Seas.

"The best brains of our Company puzzled over the mystery for a year and more; but at the end of the time nothing had turned up and we had to come out by the same door wherein we went. No theory, even, seemed to fit the case at all; and, in most mysteries, there is room for a hundred theories. There were twelve persons aboard, and we investigated the history of them all. There were three American seamen, all of the domesticated kind, with respectable old mothers in gold-rimmed spectacles at home. There were five Kanakas of the mildest type, as easy to handle as an infant school. There was a Japanese cook, who was something of an artist. He used to spend his spare time in painting things to palm off on the unsuspecting connoisseur as the work of an obscure pupil of Hokusai, which I suppose he might have been in a way. I am told he was scrupulously careful never to tell a direct lie about it.

"Then there was Harper, the mate, rather an interesting young fellow, with the wanderlust. He had been pretty well educated. I believe he had spent a year or two at one of the Californian colleges. Altogether, about the most harmless kind of a ship's family that you could pick up anywhere between the Golden Gate and the Baltic. Then there was Captain Burgess, who was the most domesticated of them all, for he had his wife with him on this voyage. They had been married only about three months. She was the widow of the former captain of the Evening Star, a fellow named Dayrell; and she had often been on the ship before. In fact, they were all old friends of the ship. Except one or two of the Kanakas, all the men had sailed on the Evening Starfor something like two years under Captain Dayrell. Burgess himself had been his mate. Dayrell had been dead only about six months; and the only criticism we ever heard against anybody aboard was made by some of Dayrell's relatives, who thought the widow might have waited more than three months before marrying the newly promoted Burgess. They suggested, of course, that there must have been something between them before Dayrell was out of the way. But I hardly believed it. In any case, it threw no light on the mystery."

"What sort of a man was Burgess?"

"Big burly fellow with a fat white face and curious little eyes, like huckleberries in a lump of dough. He was very silent and inclined to be religious. He used to read Emerson and Carlyle, quite an unusual sort of sea-captain. There was a Sartor Resartusin the cabin with a lot of the queerest passages marked in pencil. What can you make of it?"

"Nothing at all, except that there was a woman aboard. What was she like?"

"She was one of our special Californian mixtures, touch of Italian, touch of Irish, touch of American, but Italian predominated, I think. She was a good deal younger than Burgess; and one of the clerks in our office who had seen her described her as a 'peach,' which, as you know, means a pretty woman, or if you prefer the description of her own lady friends, 'vurry attractive.'"

"She had the dusky Italian beauty, black hair and eyes like black diamonds, but her face was very pale, the kind of pallor that makes you think of magnolia blossoms at dusk. She was obviously fond of bright colors, tawny reds and yellows, but they suited her. If I had to give you my impression of her in a single word, I should say that she looked like a gipsy. You know the song, 'Down the World with Marna,' don't you? Well, I could imagine a romantic vagabond singing it about her. By the by, she had rather a fine voice herself. Used to sing sentimental songs to Dayrell and his friends in 'Frisco, 'Love's Old Sweet Song' and that sort of stuff. Apparently, they took it very seriously. Several of them told me that if she had been trained—well, you know the old story—every prima donna would have had to retire from business. I fancy they were all a little in love with her. The curious thing was that after Dayrell's death she gave up her singing altogether. Now, I think I have told you all the facts about the ship's company."

"Didn't you say there was a log you wanted to show me?"

"There were no ship's papers of any kind, and no log was found on the derelict; but, a week or two ago, we had a visit from the brother of the Japanese cook, who made us all feel like fifteen cents before the wisdom of the East. I have to go over and see him to-morrow afternoon. He is a fisherman, lives on the coast, not far from here. I'd like you to see what I call the log of the Evening Star. I won't say any more about it now. It isn't quite worked out yet; but it looks as if it's going to be interesting. Will you come—to-morrow afternoon? I'll call for you at a quarter after two. It won't take us long in the automobile.

Full story here:

No comments:

Post a Comment