A new and unpublished short story. If you like this, we can do it again
The Princess of the Andes
By Victor J. Banis
The Princess of the Andes was registered in Ecuador but her owners and her crew were German. She was a freighter, and although the heyday of the ocean freighters was long past, The Princess managed each year to make a modest profit for her owners by trundling endlessly up and down the coasts of North and South America, carrying from port to port at modest rates whatever cargo she could gather—cattle or potatoes, cheap rum and tin-ware, dates and palm oil. So long as it was legal and paid an honest penny or two, anything was welcome.
She carried some passengers as well in a dozen cabins, six on the upper deck and six below. These accommodations were not of the sort to be found on the more luxurious ships that cruised the Mediterranean or the Caribbean, but they were adequate and the food, though plain, was plentiful and well prepared. Perhaps best of all, the fares were cheap, which had been a deciding factor for Randolph Letterman.
Randolph liked to take a cruise each winter, when the tourist business fell off at his little shop just off Hollywood Boulevard. Generally, he closed down for the months of December and January. He had come on board the Princess at the Port of Los Angeles, when the ship was filled with Mexicans and Central Americans taking advantage of the modest fares to return home for the holidays.
Randolph was placed at the chief engineer's table and did not really get acquainted with Captain Herrman until after they had discharged most of their passengers at Mazatlan. Indeed, for the first week of the trip Randolph found himself sharing a cabin with a Mexican gentleman who was coal black, but Randolph, who was sixty and said of himself that he had been around the dance floor a time or two, was fond of declaring that one had to make the best of things and take things as they came. He was no snob, which had enabled him to make a success of his little shop, and he was a good mixer who fancied he could find something of interest to talk about with anybody.
"If you take an interest in others," he liked to say, "Others will take an interest in you. Practice makes perfect." And, "It's an ill wind…"
After Mazatlan, there were only a few passengers continuing on, some getting off in Nicaragua and a handful more in Costa Rica, so that by the time they reached Panama City, Randolph was the sole passenger on the rest of the journey, through the Canal and as far as Haiti, where the ship turned about for the return voyage.
"I hope you won't be uncomfortable with no other company but ours," the Captain said when he seated Randolph at his table for dinner. "We're only rough sailor men." They were joined there by the first mate, the chief engineer and the ship's doctor.
The Captain turned out to be a hearty fellow, short and thick-built. When he talked, he bellowed more than not. Randolph thought him a rather peculiar specimen but he was prepared to make allowances. Because he found that the men at table with him were inclined to be taciturn, which he attributed to shyness, he quickly made it his business to take charge of the conversation. Before he had opened his shop, he had been by turns a schoolteacher and a librarian, and prior to embarking on this journey he had made it a point to learn as much as he could about their various ports of call. By the end of their first dinner together, he had shared with his tablemates no end of interesting information about the history of Panama, the building of the canal and its importance to world shipping. When at last Randolph retired to his cabin he said to himself, "There's no question about it, travel is the best kind of education. For everyone concerned."
He lay alone in his cabin and listened to the Captain and his mate chatting on the deck. Because they spoke German and Randolph knew not a word of that language, he could not know that the Captain was expostulating on "what a bore that little man is. At this rate, I am going to toss him into the sea."
Sadly, this was the truth of the matter. Raymond was a bore, an excruciating bore. He traveled alone because none of the friends who had traveled with him in the past could be induced to share another journey with him. He talked without ceasing in a steady monotone. Interrupting him was folly, because he would then only start all over again from the beginning. He had a cliché for every situation. When the men at table with him were silent, Raymond racked that up to their loneliness and set himself all the more assiduously to amusing them. Nothing stemmed the torrent of his words. They were like a force of nature.
Once, the Captain began to talk with his shipmates in German, but Randolph would have none of that.
"We speak of technical matters which could only bore you, Mister Letterman," The Captain said, but Randolph only tut-tutted at the suggestion.
"I am never bored," he said, "Which is why, if you'll forgive me a slight immodesty, I am never boring. I like to know everything. You never know when some other dear soul will want to hear something on the very subject you were about to discuss with your crew."
The Captain said a silent prayer for that dear soul of the future. He would like to have told his passenger in the bluntest terms to please shut up, but he could not. Even if his position as master of the ship had not forbidden it, he wouldn't have had the heart to be so cruel. He sighed and found some trivial matter to discuss with his mate—not so trivial, however, that Raymond could not chat about it at great length
* * *
They were a day or two out of Haiti, on their return voyage, when the doctor took ill. This was an old intestinal malady that troubled him sometimes. He was used to it, and never unduly alarmed, but he did not care to discuss it with others. When his bowels troubled him, he wanted nothing so much as to be alone.
Because his cabin was small and inclined to be stuffy, the doctor settled instead on a long chair on deck and lay back with his eyes closed. He was aware that Mister Letterman liked to walk up and down the deck morning and evening, for exercise, but the doctor thought that if he pretended to be sleeping the passenger would surely leave him alone.
Raymond passed him by half a dozen times, to and fro, and finally stopped dead in front of him.
"Is there anything I can do to help, doctor?" he asked.
The doctor had continued to pretend to be asleep, but he was so surprised by this question that his eyes flew open of their own accord.
"What makes you ask that?"
"You look quite ill."
"I am in some pain. It will pass shortly."
Raymond went away but he returned in a short while. "You look so uncomfortable there," he said, "I've brought you my own pillow, I always travel with it. Let me put it behind your head."
At the moment the doctor felt too ill to decline and he let Raymond lift his head gently and place the soft pillow behind it. Really, he thought, it did feel a great deal more comfortable.'
"I know what doctors are like," Raymond said, "They haven't the foggiest notion how to take care of themselves."
He left again but returned after a few moments and brought his own chair next to the doctor's. The doctor groaned inwardly, but Raymond said, "Now, I don't want you to talk, you just rest there. But I do think that when one is feeling under the weather it is comforting to have someone close at hand. I'm only going to sit here and read."
To the doctor's amazement, that is just what he did. It made an odd impression on the doctor. The rest of the crew were used to his idiosyncrasies and didn't notice at all any more when he took ill. He could not but be touched that the funny little man, usually such a monumental bore, had noticed, and he did indeed find it strangely soothing to open his eyes from time to time and see his companion sitting reading in silence. After a time, the doctor fell asleep. When he woke some while later, Raymond was still there. He gave the doctor a smile but said nothing. The doctor found that he felt much better.
When he went into the dining room a bit later, he found Captain Herrman and his mate, Hans, drinking a beer together.
"Join us, Doctor," the Captain greeted him. "We're just holding a council of war. "You know that Christmas Eve is only three days away."
They had brought a Christmas tree all the way from Los Angeles and the crew had been looking forward to the occasion. Separated as they were from their families, they took a very sentimental view of the holiday.
"Mister Letterman outdid himself at lunch today," the mate said. "He scarcely stopped for breath the whole time."
"It's hard enough to be apart from one's family at Christmas time, but I cannot endure the thought of spending the entire evening listening to that incessant chatterbox."
"Short of throwing him overboard, I don't know what you can do," the doctor said. "He's not a bad old soul, you know. He just needs a man."
"What on earth do you mean?" the Captain cried.
"Oh, come now, gentleman," the doctor scolded them, "Surely you must have realized by now that Mister Letterman is homosexual. Gay, in their own terms."
The Captain's face reddened. "Yes, that thought crossed my mind, but the man is sixty if he's a day. You can't mean to suggest that he's thinking of romance at his age."
"I think it all the more likely at his age," the doctor said. "All that loquacity. A good session with a lusty man, whatever it is that those people do together, it would relax all those jangled nerves. I give you my word we'd have some quiet then."
The Captain smiled at the suggestion and his eyes twinkled. "Well, then, doctor, since you are a bachelor, and this is the remedy you suggest, I think it is up to you to see to the matter."
"Pardon me, Captain, but as ship's doctor it is up to me to prescribe treatment for the afflictions of our passengers, but it is not my duty to administer it. Besides, I am past the age of sixty myself. I think that youth is an essential in this matter, and good looks an advantage. I believe our mate here, Hans, would be the ideal one to solve the problem."
Hans leapt to his feet. "Me. I wouldn't. I couldn't. Are you suggesting I am…?"
"Oh, don't be foolish," the Captain said. "You're a sailor, aren't you? Sailors have a long tradition in these matters. Didn't I see you dancing with another sailor in Belem not so long ago?"
"It was only a samba."
"Besides, you're handsome, young, and strong. We have two more weeks before we reach Los Angeles and can be free from this pest. Surely you wouldn't let the rest of us down."
"No, no, Captain, you ask too much of me. I was only married two months before we set sail, and I can hardly return to my bride and confess that I have already been unfaithful, and with a man in the bargain."
"Am I then to have the rest of my trip, and my Christmas holiday to boot, ruined because there is no man on my ship to show a little kindness to an aging homosexual? I swear it, I shall run us aground."
"What about Peter?" Hans said in a flash of inspiration. "The radio operator?"
The Captain gave a roar and pounded upon the table. "By all the angels in Heaven," he cried, "You have found the very solution. Bring that young man here, at once."
When the radio operator, young Peter, was brought into the dining room, he wondered uneasily if he had done something wrong, but he clicked his heels smartly together and stood at attention while the four men—the engineer had now joined the others—looked him over at some length.
Peter was tall, wide of shoulder and narrow of hip. His hair, a riot of curls, was golden, his eyes the blue of the sky—the very epitome of Teutonic manhood.
"How old are you, young man?" The Captain asked.
"I'm twenty one, sir."
"You are aware, are you not, that we still have one passenger aboard?"
"Yes, Sir. I've seen him a time or two on deck. He always says a very polite good morning to me."
"And I trust you have responded in kind?"
"That is good, then." The Captain assumed a serious manner, and his face took on a stern impression.
"We are a cargo ship," he said, "But as you know, we also carry passengers and because it allows us to turn a profit, this is a branch of our business our owners want us to encourage. My instructions are that we are, each of us, to do everything that we can to ensure the happiness and the comforts of our passengers. I trust that you recognize the importance of that mission."
The radio man looked puzzled, but he nodded and said, "Yes, sir. I am always happy to do what I can to make our passengers happy."
"Good. The gentleman in question needs the attentions of a man."
"Attentions, Sir?" Peter screwed up his face in puzzlement.
The Captain reddened, but he said frankly, "Of a sexual nature. And the doctor and I have decided that you are the perfect one to resolve this issue."
"Of a sexual nature, Sir? You mean, from me?" The young man blushed and gave a little laugh, but he quickly saw that this was not a matter of amusement to the others in the room. "But, I'm not inclined that way, Sir. Anyway, the gentleman is old, he's old enough to be my father."
"At your age, that shouldn't matter in the least. When I was twenty one…well, no matter, my exploits are not the issue here. Besides, this is a gentleman of distinction. He has talked with us evening after evening of his acquaintances in the city of the Angels."
"He appears to be on a first name basis with a great many members of the movie community," Hans added.
"There, you see," the Captain nodded his approval. "Who knows what might come of your kindness in this matter? You're a good-looking fellow, I don't mind telling you that. Who's to say you might not find yourself enjoying a movie career as a result of doing a good deed. It's not often one gets the opportunity to combine a little pleasure with a chance at fame and fortune."
"I am not making a request of you," The Captain interrupted him in his sternest voice, "I am giving you an order. You will present yourself to Mister Letterman in his cabin at exactly eleven o'clock tonight."
"But, what shall I do?"
"Do? What kind of foolish question is that? Do what comes naturally."
The Captain and his mates were already at table the next day when Mister Letterman bustled in. He seemed even more talkative than usual, but halfway through the meal he paused and said, thoughtfully, "I had a strange experience last evening."
For a change the others at table hung on his words, waiting breathlessly for him to go on.
"I was just about to get into bed when someone knocked at my door. 'Who is it?' I asked. 'It's the radio operator,' came the reply. 'What do you want?' I asked, and he said, 'Could I speak to you for a moment?'
"Well, I was puzzled, but I slipped on my bathrobe and opened the door, and the young man said, 'Excuse me, Sir, but would you like to send any radio messages?'
Which struck me as very amusing. I'd have laughed in his face, but I didn't want to hurt the poor boy's feelings, so I simply said, 'Thank you so much for thinking of me, but I don't care to send any messages.' I must say, he looked at me quite oddly, as if he were embarrassed, so I simply said 'Good night,' and shut the door."
"That damned fool," The Captain cried.
"He's young, Mister Letterman," the doctor said, "I suspect he thought that with Christmas approaching you might want to send someone holiday greetings."
"Oh, I took no offense," Randolph said with a little laugh, and launched into one of his more interminable stories.
* * *
When Randolph had gone, the Captain sent for the radio operator. "You fool," he berated him, "What on earth made you ask Mister Letterman if he wanted to send any messages?"
"But you told me to act naturally. That's what I do, is send messages. I didn’t' know what else to say."
"Idiot. The man is homosexual, and you are young and handsome. I put it to you, the honor of Germany is in your hands. Now, try again tonight, and do think of something a little more appropriate to say."
That night there was again a knock at Randolph's door. "It's Peter, the radio operator," came the reply when Raymond asked who it was. "I have a message for you."
"For me?" Raymond was astonished. He could think of no reason for anyone to be sending him a message—unless the worst had happened and his shop had burned to the ground.
"Slip it under the door," he said, "And I'll write an answer and slip it back to you."
When he read the message that was slipped under the door, however, his head swam and he had to fetch his spectacles and read it again to be certain he wasn't mistaken.
"Merry Christmas. Stop. I am in love with you. Stop. I want to be with you. Stop. Please, let me come in. Stop."
For the longest time Randolph could only stare at the slip of paper in his hands. He was aware of a tumultuous silence from the other side of the door. Finally, he took off his glasses and laid them on the dresser, and reached for the knob.
"Come in, please," he said.
* * *
The next day was Christmas Eve. The stewards had decorated the dining room and the Christmas tree stood lighted on a table against the wall. The officers were in a festive mood when Mister Letterman came in, a little later than was his custom. When the others greeted him, he merely nodded in return. He ate well, but said hardly a word the whole time.
Finally, the Captain said, "You're very quiet today, Mister Letterman."
"I have things on my mind," was all he would say. "Could I have a bit more of that gravy, doctor? And some more potatoes, I think."
The Captain inwardly breathed a sigh of relief and congratulated himself on what he now saw as his cleverness in discovering a solution to their problem.
After dinner the entire crew gathered to sing Christmas Carols. Randolph sang with them in a pleasant tenor. Once or twice the doctor caught him looking at the radio-operator with an expression that the doctor could only think was bewilderment.
The Captain had produced a very nice champagne. Everyone drank a little more than might have been wise, and they were all a little tipsy by the time they said good night, but Randolph, who had matched them drink for drink, managed to walk quite steadily to his own cabin.
When the officers sat down to lunch the following day, they found that Mister Letterman was already seated. At each place he had left a small parcel. The men gave Randolph questioning glances.
"You have all been so kind," he said, "I wanted to give each of you a present. I'm afraid they aren't very much."
The Captain found some fine Cuban cigars in his package. The Doctor got a half dozen silk handkerchiefs, the mate a bottle of cologne, and the engineer a pair of ties. When Randolph had retired to his cabin after the meal was ended, the officers looked a bit uncomfortably at one another while they fingered their gifts.
"I feel a little guilty for playing that trick on Mister Letterman," the mate said at last.
"He is a good old soul," the Captain said. "I doubt he could afford these presents. I wish now we'd left him alone."
"It wouldn't have hurt us any to listen to his chatter for another couple of weeks," the engineer said. Randolph had spoken hardly at all throughout the meal.
"Maybe he's ill," the Captain said.
The doctor scoffed. "He's eating like a she-bear. I think on the contrary the man's been cured of what was ailing him. But," he raised an eyebrow in the Captain's direction, "You could always speak to the radio operator."
The Captain turned red. "I think that would be indelicate." The truth was, he was a little ashamed now of forcing the radio-operator to do something that had clearly been against his own nature.
For the rest of the trip, the crew treated Mister Letterman with the utmost consideration. He might have been convalescing after a lengthy illness and they the nursing staff charged with looking after him. They competed with one another to see who could be the most charming, the most entertaining.
Despite their efforts, Randolph did not revert to his former loquacity. To the doctor it appeared as if Mister Letterman treated them all with a sort of polite disdain. He seemed to find them and their efforts amiable, but the doctor couldn't help feeling he also found them a trifle ridiculous.
At last they chugged into Los Angeles harbor. The Captain came to bid his lone passenger farewell. "I hope we've made you comfortable," he said, shaking Raymond's hand and thinking that a peck on the cheek might have served better, if he could have summoned the courage to do so.
"You've all been so very kind to me," Randolph said. "I shall never forget this time spent with you. I think it's changed my life for me."
It was with an undeniable regret that the officers saw their Mister Letterman disembark from the Princess of the Andes.
They were neither loading nor unloading cargo at this port on this occasion, however, and no sooner had their passenger left the ship than the Captain turned her around and started for the open sea again. They had a load of timber to pick up along the Oregon coast, and they were already a little behind schedule.
They were no more than half an hour out of port when the mate rushed into the Captain's quarters.
"We'll have to turn around and go back," he said without preamble. "That damned radio operator has jumped ship. He'll have to be replaced."
Farewell from the Bookshelf!
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