Authors: Scott O’Dell
Â© 1968, 2008 by Scott O'Dell
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Originally published in 1968 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
The dark canoe / by Scott O'Dell.
Summary: Sixteen-year-old Nathan sails from nineteenth-century Nantucket to a remote California bay with his two older brothers and finds himself in mysterious circumstances involving the death of one brother and the strange obsession of the other.
ISBN-13: 978-1-4022-1334-2 (alk. paper)
ISBN-10: 1-4022-1334-4 (alk. paper)
[1. Seafaring lifeâFiction. 2. BrothersâFiction. 3. Mental illnessâFiction. 4. Magdalena Bay (Mexico)âHistoryâ19th centuryâFiction. 5. Mystery and detective stories.] I. Title.
“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even nowâ¦See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!''
It came floating up to us at dusk without a sound, on the running tide, through more than five fathoms of murky water, out of the heart of Magdalena Bay.
There was no breeze on that day in September. No leaf turned among the mangroves. Not a fish leaped nor a wing stirred anywhere. And to the north of where our ship lay anchored, the salt marshes glittered as if they were on fire.
Yet there were two men in our crew who said they had sailed into ports where the sun was so hot that the waters steamed and boiled. Jim Blanton said that he knew a place where the sun never set, but shone night and day. And Judd, the carpenter, swore with a hand clasped to his heart that once in the Strait of Madagascar he had cooked his supper on the iron fluke of a ship's anchor. I still think that the sun at Magdalena Bay in Baja California is the hottest sun in the world.
Even now when night was close upon us the heat lingered on. The ship and the surrounding bay, the marshes and the mangrove forests, the near islands and the far coasts, all were lost in a leaden haze. Your eyes could not be trusted. What seemed to be one thing turned out to be another. But I was certain of what I saw there below me. It was the drifting form, the arms clasped tight against the body and the face bent downward, of our dead captain, my brother Jeremy.
It is not strange that he was the first I thought of, nor that I felt so certain. Since the night seven days before when he had disappeared from the ship, I had thought of little else. Few liked him, I must confess, for Jeremy Clegg was a hard master. There were some who hated him for his arrogance, and some who envied his good fortune. But to me he had always been a blond-haired, smiling god.
No, not strange that I felt so certain of what I saw floating there in the murky water. Yet as I stood at the rail staring down, what I took to be the body of my brother slowly turned with the tide and nosed against the ship. Peering into the darkness, I now felt that it was much too large to be a human body.
Throughout the day, while we were out searching for the wreck of the
, a school of hammerheads had followed us and we had shot three of them. But as the object slowly turned again with the changing tide and lay there, half in and half out of the water, I saw that it was not the carcass of one of these marauding sharks.
At this season of the year when the chubascos blow up from the south, they are said to drive before them the trunks of hardwood trees from the jungles of Mexico. The object that gently nudged the side of the ship was of a different size and color from a wind-driven tree.
La Perla Reef runs east and west at the entrance to Magdalena Bay. All the month of August and now in September, we had searched every spur of it, every cleft and cave, for the sunken hulk of the
. Islets are scattered nearby and the waters around them we had searched also, without success. So the object that I stood staring at had not come from La Perla. Whatever it was, it had floated in from somewhere else, perhaps from the open sea.
I leaned far over the rail. By now the last of the light was gone. All I could make out in the gathered darkness was the outline of something that might be an abandoned boat lying bottom up, one of the canoes that voyaging Indians used on the seas hereabouts. Yet it was too small for a canoe, being not more than seven feet long and half as wide, I judged.
My next thought gave me a start. As the mysterious object had floated into view, at the moment when I decided that it was neither a shark nor the trunk of a tree, I had noted a curious thing about it that I now remembered. Clearly, it had been shaped by human hands, and from wood or else it would not have floated.
I strained my eyes. Was the thing that lay there, hidden by the night, some sort of chest? In past days, so I had been told, Spanish galleons laden with silver and gold had sought refuge here in Magdalena, both from storms and English pirates. If it were a chestâand I began to think that it wasâcould it have come from one of those treasure ships?
There was something else to support this view. Three days after dropping anchor in Magdalena Bay, we were visited by a band of sea gypsies. They came gliding in at dawn, a dozen or more naked Indians lounging in three canoes. Their chief, who was a wizened little man the color of mud, made signs that he wished to barter. My brother Jeremy motioned him aboard and let down a ladder, but the chief scrambled like a monkey up the anchor chain.
My brother gave him a packet of ship's nails and a length of frayed rope. In return, taking them from his armpits, the chief held out two coins, bit them between his teeth, and dropped them into my brother's hand. They were bright pieces of gold, in shape more round than square, each showing three mountain summits, on one a crowing cock, on another a flame, and on the third a tower.
When asked if he had more coins of this nature, the chief shook his head, slid down the anchor chain, rummaged around in his canoe, and scrambled back, holding a piece of a red Spanish shawl. My brother gave him another length of frayed rope, whereupon he motioned for the rest of his followers to climb aboard the ship. This, my brother refused to allow, and the chief left in anger. As the three canoes glided away, the sea gypsies made threatening gestures at us.
Thinking of this encounter, which proved to me that Spanish galleons had been in Magdalena at some time and were probably raided by the Indians, I was more certain than ever that the object that had floated up was a treasure chest.
At this moment, as I stood deep in thought, something brushed against my leg. It was Sapphire, the white bobtailed cat which belonged to my older brother, Caleb. No one in the crew, save myself, and only because I regularly fetched it scraps from the galley, was on good terms with the big cat. In fact, no one took note of him, or at least pretended not to, since he had long claws and an evil disposition. Even a kind word was apt to make him snarl.
I stood back from the rail. Sapphire's presence meant that Caleb Clegg was not far away. A short time later he came hobbling out of his cabin, the heavy boot he wore on his left foot making a shuffling sound on the deck. The bells had rung for supper, so he must have been surprised to find me standing there.
Caleb said nothing, however, but looking up at the night's first star spoke, more, it seemed, to the star than to me.
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
He paused and glanced around. Ten years older than I, he towered above me, a tall man and broad of neck and shoulder, but stooped, as if he carried upon his back some heavy burden.
“Aye, 'tis Nathan,” he said.
His voice came from far off, deep within him. It was musical to the ear, yet always, since the first time I had heard him speak, it made me uncomfortable. I felt as if his voice did not fit his craggy face and burning gaze, but that someone else, a gentler person, was speaking.
“Dost thou watch the starry islands overhead?” he mused. “Or dost think of lost Jeremy? Or perhaps of thy birthday on the morrow? 'Tis which, the fourteenth, the fifteenth? I do forget.”
“The sixteenth,” I said.
“Sixteen! The sapling grows. Soon thou will be a man.” He tugged at his heavy black beard. “What dost thou wish for a present? Mind thee, it must be simple, since no store lies at hand.”
The present I wished for could not be found on the ship or in any store. My wish was to go home, back to Nantucket, as was the wish of everyone aboard the ship, save Caleb Clegg.
“A book,” I said, for I liked to read and the bulwarks of his cabin, each nook and cubbyhole, were stacked with books.
“A book it shall be.”
He touched me awkwardly on the shoulder and was about to say more when he suddenly withdrew his hand and fell silent. There was, there had been for as long as I could remember, a barrier between us. I suppose it was there because my thoughts and love were centered upon my brother Jeremy. Yet there was another reason, too.
In the silence I heard a faint thump. The sound was twice repeated as the tide pushed at the chestâyes, I was certain now that it was a chest that lay there in the nightâand lifted it against the ship's side. I glanced up at my brother, thinking that he too might have heard the sound, but he was lost in thought.
Without another word, he soon clasped his hands behind his back and hobbled off, the big white cat at his heels. Each evening before supper he made two rounds of the deck, so I waited until he passed again, until he opened the door of his cabin and said, casting a long look at the sky:
“For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.”
I must say that if my brother Jeremy had been alive I would not have kept silent about the chest. He would have been the first I told. But I never thought for a moment of entrusting my secret to Caleb.
Caleb closed the door behind him. Moving quickly I made a noose in a long piece of line, threw it over the side, and after several minutes was able to snare one end of the floating chest. Taking up the slack, I thrust the line through a ringbolt and fastened it so as least to catch the eye of anyone walking along the deck. I then hurried down the ladderway two steps at a time.