The Ghost in the Crosstrees by Frank Norris
Cyrus Ryder, the President of the South Pacific Exploitation
Company, had at last got hold of a “proposition”—all Ryder's schemes
were, in his vernacular, “propositions”—that was not only profitable
beyond precedent or belief, but that also was, wonderful to say, more
or less legitimate. He had got an “island.” He had not discovered it.
Ryder had not felt a deck under his shoes for twenty years other than
the promenade deck of the ferry-boat San Rafael, that takes him
home to Berkeley every evening after “business hours.” He had not
discovered it, but “Old Rosemary,” captain of the barkentine
Scottish Chief, of Blyth, had done that very thing, and, dying
before he was able to perfect the title, had made over his interest in
it to his best friend and old comrade, Cyrus Ryder.
“Old Rosemary,” I am told, first landed on the island—it is called
Paa—in the later '60's.
He established its location and took its latitude and longitude, but
as minutes and degrees mean nothing to the lay reader, let it be said
that the Island of Paa lies just below the equator, some 200 miles west
of the Gilberts and 1,600 miles due east from Brisbane, in Australia.
It is six miles long, three wide, and because of the prevailing winds
and precipitous character of the coast can only be approached from the
west during December and January.
“Old Rosemary” landed on the island, raised the American flag, had
the crew witness the document by virtue of which he made himself the
possessor, and then, returning to San Francisco, forwarded to the
Secretary of State, at Washington, application for title. This was
withheld till it could be shown that no other nation had a prior claim.
While “Old Rosemary” was working out the proof, he died, and the whole
matter was left in abeyance till Cyrus Ryder took it up. By then there
was a new Secretary in Washington and times were changed, so that the
Government of Ryder's native land was not so averse toward acquiring
Eastern possessions. The Secretary of State wrote to Ryder to say that
the application would be granted upon furnishing a bond for $50,000;
and you may believe that the bond was forthcoming.
For in the first report upon Paa, “Old Rosemary” had used the magic
He averred, and his crew attested over their sworn statements, that
Paa was covered to an average depth of six feet with the stuff, so that
this last and biggest of “Cy” Ryder's propositions was a vast slab of
an extremely marketable product six feet thick, three miles wide and
six miles long.
But no sooner had the title been granted when there came a
dislocation in the proceedings that until then had been going forward
so smoothly. Ryder called the Three Black Crows to him at this
juncture, one certain afternoon in the month of April. They were his
best agents. The plums that the “Company” had at its disposal generally
went to the trio, and if any man could “put through” a dangerous and
desperate piece of work, Strokher, Hardenberg and Ally Bazan were those
Of late they had been unlucky, and the affair of the contraband
arms, which had ended in failure of cataclysmic proportions, yet
rankled in Ryder's memory, but he had no one else to whom he could
intrust the present proposition and he still believed Hardenberg to be
the best boss on his list.
If Paa was to be fought for, Hardenberg, backed by Strokher and Ally
Bazan, was the man of all men for the job, for it looked as though
Ryder would not get the Island of Paa without a fight after all, and
nitrate beds were worth fighting for.
“You see, boys, it's this way,” Ryder explained to the three as they
sat around the spavined table in the grimy back room of Ryder's
“office.” “It's this way. There's a scoovy after Paa, I'm told; he says
he was there before 'Rosemary,' which is a lie, and that his Gov'ment
has given him title. He's got a kind of dough-dish up Portland way and
starts for Paa as soon as ever he kin fit out. He's got no title, in
course, but if he gits there afore we do and takes possession it'll
take fifty years o' lawing an' injunctioning to git him off. So hustle
is the word for you from the word 'go.' We got a good start o' the
scoovy. He can't put to sea within a week, while over yonder in Oakland
Basin there's the Idaho Lass, as good a schooner, boys, as ever
wore paint, all ready but to fit her new sails on her. Ye kin do it in
less than no time. The stores will be goin' into her while ye're
workin', and within the week I expect to see the Idaho Lass
showing her heels to the Presidio. You see the point now, boys. If ye
beat the scoovy—his name is Petersen, and his boat is called the
Elftruda—we're to the wind'ard of a pretty pot o' money. If he
gets away before you do—well, there's no telling; we prob'ly lose the
About ten days before the morning set for their departure I went
over to the Oakland Basin to see how the Three Black Crows were getting
Hardenberg welcomed me as my boat bumped alongside, and extending a
great tarry paw, hauled me over the rail. The schooner was a wilderness
of confusion, with the sails covering, apparently, nine-tenths of the
decks, the remaining tenth encumbered by spars, cordage, tangled
rigging, chains, cables and the like, all helter-skeltered together in
such a haze of entanglements that my heart misgave me as I looked on
it. Surely order would not issue from this chaos in four days' time
with only three men to speed the work.
But Hardenberg was reassuring, and little Ally Bazan, the colonial,
told me they would “snatch her shipshape in the shorter end o' two
days, if so be they must.”
I stayed with the Three Crows all that day and shared their dinner
with them on the quarterdeck when, wearied to death with the strain of
wrestling with the slatting canvas and ponderous boom, they at last
threw themselves upon the hamper of “cold snack” I had brought off with
me and pledged the success of the venture in tin dippers full of
“And I'm thinking,” said Ally Bazan, “as 'ow ye might as well turn
in along o' us on board 'ere, instead o' hykin' back to town to-night.
There's a fairish set o' currents up and daown 'ere about this time o'
dye, and ye'd find it a stiff bit o' rowing.”
“We'll sling a hammick for you on the quarterdeck, m'son,” urged
And so it happened that I passed my first night aboard the Idaho
We turned in early. The Three Crows were very tired, and only Ally
Bazan and I were left awake at the time when we saw the 8:30 ferryboat
negotiating for her slip on the Oakland side. Then we also went to bed.
And now it becomes necessary, for a better understanding of what is
to follow, to mention with some degree of particularization the places
and manners in which my three friends elected to take their sleep, as
well as the condition and berth of the schooner Idaho Lass.
Hardenberg slept upon the quarterdeck, rolled up in an army blanket
and a tarpaulin. Strokher turned in below in the cabin upon the fixed
lounge by the dining-table, while Ally Bazan stretched himself in one
of the bunks in the fo'c's'le.
As for the location of the schooner, she lay out in the stream, some
three or four cables' length off the yards and docks of a ship-building
concern. No other ship or boat of any description was anchored nearer
than at least 300 yards. She was a fine, roomy vessel, three-masted,
about 150 feet in length overall. She lay head up stream, and from
where I lay by Hardenberg on the quarterdeck I could see her tops
sharply outlined against the sky above the Golden Gate before I went to
I suppose it was very early in the morning—nearer two than
three—when I awoke. Some movement on the part of Hardenberg—as I
afterward found out—had aroused me. But I lay inert for a long minute
trying to find out why I was not in my own bed, in my own home, and to
account for the rushing, rippling sound of the tide eddies sucking and
chuckling around the Lass's rudder-post.
Then I became aware that Hardenberg was awake. I lay in my hammock,
facing the stern of the schooner, and as Hardenberg had made up his bed
between me and the wheel he was directly in my line of vision when I
opened my eyes, and I could see him without any other movement than
that of raising the eyelids. Just now, as I drifted more and more into
wakefulness, I grew proportionately puzzled and perplexed to account
for a singularly strange demeanour and conduct on the part of my
He was sitting up in his place, his knees drawn up under the
blanket, one arm thrown around both, the hand of the other arm resting
on the neck and supporting the weight of his body. He was broad awake.
I could see the green shine of our riding lantern in his wide-open
eyes, and from time to time I could hear him muttering to himself,
“What is it? What is it? What the devil is it, anyhow?” But it was not
his attitude, nor the fact of his being so broad awake at the
unseasonable hour, nor yet his unaccountable words, that puzzled me the
most. It was the man's eyes and the direction in which they looked that
His gaze was directed not upon anything on the deck of the boat, nor
upon the surface of the water near it, but upon something behind me and
at a great height in the air. I was not long in getting myself broad
I rolled out on the deck and crossed over to where Hardenberg sat
huddled in his blankets.
“What the devil—” I began.
He jumped suddenly at the sound of my voice, then raised an arm and
pointed toward the top of the foremast.
“D'ye see it?” he muttered. “Say, huh? D'ye see it? I thought I saw
it last night, but I wasn't sure. But there's no mistake now. D'ye see
it, Mr. Dixon?”
I looked where he pointed. The schooner was riding easily to anchor,
the surface of the bay was calm, but overhead the high white sea-fog
was rolling in. Against it the foremast stood out like the hand of an
illuminated town clock, and not a detail of its rigging that was not as
distinct as if etched against the sky.
And yet I saw nothing.
“Where?” I demanded, and again and again “where?”
“In the crosstrees,” whispered Hardenberg. “Ah, look there.”
He was right. Something was stirring there, something that I had
mistaken for the furled tops'l. At first it was but a formless bundle,
but as Hardenberg spoke it stretched itself, it grew upright, it
assumed an erect attitude, it took the outlines of a human being. From
head to heel a casing housed it in, a casing that might have been
anything at that hour of the night and in that strange place—a shroud,
if you like, a winding-sheet—anything; and it is without shame that I
confess to a creep of the most disagreeable sensation I have ever known
as I stood at Hardenberg's side on that still, foggy night and watched
the stirring of that nameless, formless shape standing gaunt and tall
and grisly and wrapped in its winding-sheet upon the crosstrees of the
foremast of the Idaho Lass.
We watched and waited breathless for an instant. Then the creature
on the foremast laid a hand upon the lashings of the tops'l and undid
them. Then it turned, slid to the deck by I know not what strange
process, and, still hooded, still shrouded, still lapped about by its
mummy-wrappings, seized a rope's end. In an instant the jib was set and
stood on hard and billowing against the night wind. The tops'l
followed. Then the figure moved forward and passed behind the
companionway of the fo'c's'le.
We looked for it to appear upon the other side, but looked in vain.
We saw it no more that night.
What Hardenberg and I told each other between the time of the
disappearing and the hour of breakfast I am now ashamed to recall. But
at last we agreed to say nothing to the others—for the time being.
Just after breakfast, however, we two had a few words by the wheel on
the quarterdeck. Ally Bazan and Strokher were forward.
“The proper thing to do,” said I—it was a glorious, exhilarating
morning, and the sunlight was flooding every angle and corner of the
schooner—“the proper thing to do is to sleep on deck by the foremast
to-night with our pistols handy and interview the—party if it walks
“Oh, yes,” cried Hardenberg heartily. “Oh, yes; that's the proper
thing. Of course it is. No manner o' doubt about that, Mr. Dixon. Watch
for the party—yes, with pistols. Of course it's the proper thing. But
I know one man that ain't going to do no such thing.”
“Well,” I remember to have said reflectively, “well—I guess I know
But for all our resolutions to say nothing to the others about the
night's occurrences, we forgot that the tops'l and jib were both set
and both drawing.
“An' w'at might be the bloomin' notion o' setting the bloomin' kite
and jib?” demanded Ally Bazan not half an hour after breakfast.
Shamelessly Hardenberg, at a loss for an answer, feigned an interest in
the grummets of the life-boat cover and left me to lie as best I might.
But it is not easy to explain why one should raise the sails of an
anchored ship during the night, and Ally Bazan grew very suspicious.
Strokher, too, had something to say, and in the end the whole matter
Trust a sailor to give full value to anything savouring of the
supernatural. Strokher promptly voted the ship a “queer old hooker
anyhow, and about as seaworthy as a hen-coop.” He held forth at great
length upon the subject.
“You mark my words, now,” he said. “There's been some fishy doin's
in this 'ere vessel, and it's like somebody done to death crool hard,
an' 'e wants to git away from the smell o' land, just like them as is
killed on blue water. That's w'y 'e takes an' sets the sails between
dark an' dawn.”
But Ally Bazan was thoroughly and wholly upset, so much so that at
first he could not speak. He went pale and paler while we stood talking
it over, and crossed himself—he was a Catholic—furtively behind the
“I ain't never 'a' been keen on ha'nts anyhow, Mr. Dixon,” he told
me aggrievedly at dinner that evening. “I got no use for 'em. I ain't
never known any good to come o' anything with a ha'nt tagged to it, an'
we're makin' a ill beginnin' o' this island business, Mr. Dixon—a
blyme ill beginnin'. I mean to stye awyke to-night.”
But if he was awake the little colonial was keeping close to his
bunk at the time when Strokher and Hardenberg woke me at about three in
I rolled out and joined them on the quarterdeck and stood beside
them watching. The same figure again towered, as before, gray and
ominous in the crosstrees. As before, it set the tops'l; as before, it
came down to the deck and raised the jib; as before, it passed out of
sight amid the confusion of the forward deck.
But this time we all ran toward where we last had seen it, stumbling
over the encumbered decks, jostling and tripping, but keeping
wonderfully close together. It was not twenty seconds from the time the
creature had disappeared before we stood panting upon the exact spot we
had last seen it. We searched every corner of the forward deck in vain.
We looked over the side. The moon was up. This night there was no fog.
We could see for miles each side of us, but never a trace of a boat was
visible, and it was impossible that any swimmer could have escaped the
merciless scrutiny to which we subjected the waters of the bay in every
Hardenberg and I dived down into the fo'c's'le. Ally Bazan was sound
asleep in his bunk and woke stammering, blinking and bewildered by the
lantern we carried.
“I sye,” he cried, all at once scrambling up and clawing at our
arms, “D'd the bally ha'nt show up agyne?” And as we nodded he went on
more aggrievedly than ever—“Oh, I sye, y' know, I daon't like this. I
eyen't shipping in no bloomin' 'ooker wot carries a ha'nt for
supercargo. They waon't no good come o' this cruise—no, they waon't.
It's a sign, that's wot it is. I eyen't goin' to buck again no
signs—it eyen't human nature, no it eyen't. You mark my words, 'Bud'
Hardenberg, we clear this port with a ship wot has a ha'nt an' we
waon't never come back agyne, my hearty.”
That night he berthed aft with us on the quarterdeck, but though we
stood watch and watch till well into the dawn, nothing stirred about
the foremast. So it was the next night, and so the night after that.
When three successive days had passed without any manifestation the
keen edge of the business became a little blunted and we declared that
an end had been made.
Ally Bazan returned to his bunk in the fo'c's'le on the fourth
night, and the rest of us slept the hours through unconcernedly.
But in the morning there were the jib and tops'l set and drawing as
After this we began experimenting—on Ally Bazan. We bunked him
forward and we bunked him aft, for some one had pointed out that the
“ha'nt” walked only at the times when the colonial slept in the
fo'c's'le. We found this to be true. Let the little fellow watch on the
quarterdeck with us and the night passed without disturbance. As soon
as he took up his quarters forward the haunting recommenced.
Furthermore, it began to appear that the “ha'nt” carefully refrained
from appearing to him. He of us all had never seen the thing. He of us
all was spared the chills and the harrowings that laid hold upon the
rest of us during these still gray hours after midnight when we huddled
on the deck of the Idaho Lass and watched the sheeted apparition
in the rigging; for by now there was no more charging forward in
attempts to run the ghost down. We had passed that stage long since.
But so far from rejoicing in this immunity or drawing courage
therefrom, Ally Bazan filled the air with his fears and expostulations.
Just the fact that he was in some way differentiated from the
others—that he was singled out, if only for exemption—worked upon
him. And that he was unable to scale his terrors by actual sight of
their object excited them all the more.
And there issued from this a curious consequence. He, the very one
who had never seen the haunting, was also the very one to unsettle what
little common sense yet remained to Hardenberg and Strokher. He never
allowed the subject to be ignored—never lost an opportunity of
referring to the doom that o'erhung the vessel. By the hour he poured
into the ears of his friends lugubrious tales of ships, warned as this
one was, that had cleared from port, never to be seen again. He
recalled to their minds parallel incidents that they themselves had
heard; he foretold the fate of the Idaho Lass when the land
should lie behind and she should be alone in midocean with this horrid
supercargo that took liberties with the rigging, and at last one
particular morning, two days before that which was to witness the
schooner's departure, he came out flatfooted to the effect that
“Gaw-blyme him, he couldn't stand the gaff no longer, no he couldn't,
so help him, that if the owners were wishful for to put to sea” (doomed
to some unnamable destruction) “he for one wa'n't fit to die, an' was
going to quit that blessed day.” For the sake of appearances,
Hardenberg and Strokher blustered and fumed, but I could hear the crack
in Strokher's voice as plain as in a broken ship's bell. I was not
surprised at what happened later in the day, when he told the others
that he was a very sick man. A congenital stomach trouble, it
seemed—or was it liver complaint—had found him out again. He had
contracted it when a lad at Trincomalee, diving for pearls; it was
acutely painful, it appeared. Why, gentlemen, even at that very moment,
as he stood there talking—Hi, yi! O Lord !—talking, it was a-griping
of him something uncommon, so it was. And no, it was no manner of use
for him to think of going on this voyage; sorry he was, too, for he'd
made up his mind, so he had, to find out just what was wrong with the
And thereupon Hardenberg swore a great oath and threw down the
capstan bar he held in his hand.
“Well, then,” he cried wrathfully, “we might as well chuck up the
whole business. No use going to sea with a sick man and a scared man.”
“An' there's the first word o' sense,” cried Ally Bazan, “I've heard
this long day. 'Scared,' he says; aye, right ye are, me bully.”
“It's Cy Rider's fault,” the three declared after a two-hours' talk.
“No business giving us a schooner with a ghost aboard. Scoovy or no
scoovy, island or no island, guano or no guano, we don't go to sea in
the haunted hooker called the Idaho Lass.”
No more they did. On board the schooner they had faced the
supernatural with some kind of courage born of the occasion. Once on
shore, and no money could hire, no power force them to go aboard a
The affair ended in a grand wrangle in Cy Rider's back office, and
just twenty-four hours later the bark Elftruda, Captain Jens
Petersen, cleared from Portland, bound for “a cruise to South Pacific
* * * * *
Two years after this I took Ally Bazan with me on a duck-shooting
excursion in the “Toolies” back of Sacramento, for he is a handy man
about a camp and can row a boat as softly as a drifting cloud.
We went about in a cabin cat of some thirty feet over all, the
rowboat towing astern. Sometimes we did not go ashore to camp, but
slept aboard. On the second night of this expedient I woke in my
blankets on the floor of the cabin to see the square of gray light that
stood for the cabin door darkened by—it gave me the same old start—a
sheeted figure. It was going up the two steps to the deck. Beyond
question it had been in the cabin. I started up and followed it. I was
too frightened not to—if you can see what I mean. By the time I had
got the blankets off and had thrust my head above the level of the
cabin hatch the figure was already in the bows, and, as a matter of
course, hoisting the jib.
I thought of calling Ally Bazan, who slept by me on the cabin floor,
but it seemed to me at the time that if I did not keep that figure in
sight it would elude me again, and, besides, if I went back in the
cabin I was afraid that I would bolt the door and remain under the
bedclothes till morning. I was afraid to go on with the adventure, but
I was much more afraid to go back.
So I crept forward over the deck of the sloop. The “ha'nt” had its
back toward me, fumbling with the ends of the jib halyards. I could
hear the creak of new ropes as it undid the knot, and the sound was
certainly substantial and commonplace. I was so close by now that I
could see every outline of the shape. It was precisely as it had
appeared on the crosstrees of the Idaho, only, seen without
perspective, and brought down to the level of the eye, it lost its
It had been kneeling upon the deck. Now, at last, it rose and turned
about, the end of the halyards in its hand. The light of the earliest
dawn fell squarely on the face and form, and I saw, if you please, Ally
Bazan himself. His eyes were half shut, and through his open lips came
the sound of his deep and regular breathing.
At breakfast the next morning I asked, “Ally Bazan, did you ever
walk in your sleep.”
“Aye,” he answered, “years ago, when I was by wye o' being a lad, I
used allus to wrap the bloomin' sheets around me. An' crysy things I'd
do the times. But the 'abit left me when I grew old enough to tyke me
whisky strite and have hair on me fyce.”
I did not “explain away” the ghost in the crosstrees either to Ally
Bazan or to the other two Black Crows. Furthermore, I do not now refer
to the Island of Paa in the hearing of the trio. The claims and title
of Norway to the island have long since been made good and
conceded—even by the State Department at Washington—and I understand
that Captain Petersen has made a very pretty fortune out of the affair.