A Tall Ship Tale #80: Isthmus Be The Place

The eightieth episode from Paul DeAnguera.

As the H.M.S. Legume approached South America, Emma peered eastward from the crow’s nest. “How are you doing up there?” the First Mate called impatiently.

“Chile!” she called out, not attending to him.

“Do you want your astrakhan?” he asked.

“Camana!” she shouted, which might have led to a misunderstanding. But at this point there was a general outcry as land came into view from the frigate’s deck. Soon they dropped anchor outside of Camana, Peru, and the ship’s officers decided to spend the night in town. Escaping from the hot sun into the Hotel de San Martín, they presented themselves at the desk. “May we have rooms for the night, please?” the First Mate inquired.

The bald head of the clerk gleamed in a ray of hot sunlight from the street as he turned the pages of the register one by one. At last he slowly looked up to meet the First Mate’s gaze, his golden pince-nez glittering briefly red. “Certainly, Lieutenant,” he said in a clipped British accent. “Simply sign the book; here are your keys.”

Cornelius Peabody glanced backward at the desk as they walked away, and whispered urgently: “That clerk is no Peruvian! He’s Egyptian. Do you recognize him?”

“Yassar Ryidawei Sar,” the First Mate growled. “That weasel! I remember him from Chapter 40.” Just then a woman burst out of a side door and blundered into them. “Madam, compose yourself! And tell us what has happened.”

“I’ve had an Eiffel,” she panted.

“An eye-full? What did you see that disturbed you so?”

“Just Gustave,” she muttered, and fled into the plaza.

“Keep a sharp look-out behind you; they play rough here,” the Captain advised. In the dining room, the maitre d’ approached them apologetically. “I’m dreadfully short of tables tonight! Would you mind joining the French gentleman over there? He is a civil engineer.”

“I’m relieved to hear it,” the First Mate said. They introduced themselves to the towering Frenchman, and learned that he was also a guest at the hotel. “I’ve come to see about a most amazing inheritance,” he explained. “You see, the ruins of Machu Picchu were far too vast and complex for the Conquistadors to plunder completely. As it turned out, Atahuallpa buried the Inca treasury in a cave under that ghostly city. Due to its weight and the difficult mountain terrain, his descendants never moved it; but they dealt in securities funded by it. And some of these certificates have come to me by the unfortunate death of a Spanish relation. I will use the money for my next engineering feat — a canal enabling the passage of ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic!”

“You’d build it through the isthmus, I suppose?” Peabody speculated.

“No, no — right here in Camana! Look,” he explained as he unrolled a map. “You see, the Urumbamba River is not far from here, and it flows right into the Anazon!”

The Captain peered curiously at the map, being more used to sea charts. “What’s this?” he asked, pointing to red letters across the map’s center:


“Why, I suppose the land thereabouts belongs to this fellow — Andy, that is. But surely I can arrange for an easement of some sort,” the Frenchman mused.

“A terrific scheme!” Peabody enthused. “Imagine the fleets of the world passing under the very shadows of the Cuzco ruins, traversing your canal from one hemisphere to the next!”

“It could affect the balance of world power,” the Captain realized. “I hope you’ve taken precautions with those certificates.”

“Never worry! Did you notice the massive oak strongbox behind the hotel desk? They are safe inside.”

But late that night the Legumers awoke to shouts and screaming. They emerged from their rooms to find the hall lit with flames! Oddly enough, the hotel staff had disappeared; but fortunately the sailors knew how to handle a crisis. They organized themselves by floor, woke all of the other guests and conducted them safely to the plaza.

The rising sun revealed that the Hotel de San Martín had burned down to the ground. The tragedy had all the markings of a deliberate fire. The officers’ last impression of Camana was the French engineer sobbing as he dug in the smoldering ruin.

“What happened in town?” the officer of the watch asked as they climbed through the Legume’s entry port. Wordlessly, the Captain handed him the morning paper. The headline read:


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