LAUGHTER OF THE SEA
D. H. and R. T. WOODWORTH
A story of men, the sea, and a ship, and the battles they fought off Prince Edward Island’s rock-bound shore.
A DEEP haze hung over the Bay of Fundy, made even more pronounced by the afternoon sun of the late August day; a haze that almost blended sea and sky into one, with a hint of deep purple on the very horizon; a haze such as is seen only on the ocean, enigmatical, mysterious, alluring. Down by the little harbor of Lepreau the lazy waves slapped idly at the moored fishing boats and chuckled sleepily as they rolled along the dark wet shingle.
It was nearing five o’clock, the time when all of the sixty-odd inhabitants of Lepreau, young and old, were wont to gather at the combined village post-office and Btore to be present at the distribution of the half dozen letters that might come on the afternoon train. Singly or in small groups, the villagers were moving toward the common attraction, their voices unheard above the breeze that brought inland the mellow surge of the sea.
Captain Donald Sellers of the Sarah Elizabeth sat on the steps of the post-office idly whittling at a bit of pine, his jack knife cutting long clean shavings from the snowy wood. He glanced up occasionally to nod or speak when some acquaintance approached, then resumed his whittling in the warm sunshine. When done, that bit of pine would be a tiny fisherman’s dory for his sister’s little boy.
Hearing a slight commotion from the direction of the harbor, the captain turned that way and watched with an amused smile the approach of two long-haired, longlimbed, loosely clothed strangers, trailed by a band of ever curious youngsters on the lookout for novelty.
The two strangers directly came to the postoffice with an air of serious finality.
“Afternoon, sir,” they addressed the captain.
The old man nodded, and the two passed into the building. He had seen their like before.
A bit of laughter floated down the hillside and the captain glanced up at his little white cottage in time to see his daughter Dora come running down to the gate where young Jim Mealy was waiting for her. Hardly had the couple reached a turn in the road, however, before they met John Balsam, who, at a gesture from the girl, fell into step with them.
Dora seemed to divide her attention equally between Jim and John, though the old man could see that her more approving glances were reserved for the gay Jim Mealy rather than her more serious companion. The captain searched her face carefully, as the three paused not far from him, as if he would read her thoughts. “There is no '.^noming a girl’s heart,” he mused.
After all, why shouldn’t old Mealy’s boy appear more attractive to her? Son of a retired shopkeeper of Saint John, he had been given the best the town afforded until
the failure of a bank in that city had wiped away his father’s entire savings, except for the little cottage in Lepreau in which the two now lived. Tall and dark and debonair, Jim Mealy was a natural leader at every dance or sociable held in the village.
Yet the old captain, schooled in the ways of men by his long years on the sea, looked with more favor on the quiet youth who was a comparative newcomer in the village. John Balsam was a “State o’ Maine-er” who had come to Lepreau the winter before, after the shipwreck of the lumber schooner upon which he was making his first voyage. He had come of a long line of sailormen; his father, and his father’s father before him, had earned their livelihood on the wide meadows of the sea. And in his calm grey eyes there was a depth as unfathomable as that of the ocean itself, clear and steady and cool.
“Diggin’ treasure?” queried a hearty voice at the captain’s shoulder, and the master of the Sarah Elizabeth straightened with a snap as he turned to greet Samuel York, an old English man-o-war’s man, who had been his mate for the past two years. At the same time, he observed that during his short reverie most of the villagers had already gathered about the store.
The two lanky strangers had come out of the building and now stood on the steps preparatory to addressing the gathering.
“Who be ye?” called out an old fisherman, cupping his right hand back of his ear.
“Our name is Trantor,” answered one who was apparently the spokesman, his voice strangely deep and resonant, like the vibrant tone of a taut backstay in a strong wind. The other man kept silent, nodding as his companion spoke. It was evident that the two men were brothers.
“We’ve come to warn you of an approaching gale.”
There was silence.
‘Prophesiers’ had been through the village many times before, and they were always listened to by the people of Leprau. Deep-rooted in the minds of the simple villagers was a touch of mysticism and superstition born of the mystery of the rolling ocean; present as ever it is in the hearts of the men who go down to the sea in ships.
Captain Donald Sellers, who ‘took mighty little stock’ in prophesy or divination, could remember when the Saxby brothers had arrived in the summer of ’69 to predict the terrible and still-talked-of Saxby Gale that
had come on schedule to the very day, October 4. But the earthquake that was to follow in seven days and destroy the earth, though it did come as predicted, was but a slight tremor that had failed to change a single landmark in the surrounding country.
All mere ‘happenstance,’ the captain thought, shaking his head. Then suddenly he recalled the April snow, a most unusual occurrence on that coast. Months before its advent a sombre-eyed old man had appeared in the village and assured the people that there would be a four-foot snowfall in the following April, and would last exactly seven days. The captain wondered about the magic of that number seven. In almost every ‘warning’ it had appeared at least once. But the snow had come, exactly as forecast, and had melted in seven days as the ancient had predicted it would.
Captain Donald Sellers was forced to admit that these prophesies had held some truth in them. He also realized that they lent color and a sense of surrounding mystery to the otherwise drab and rather humdrum existence of these fisher folk who lacked his deep sea experience with the outside world. The sea gave them their living, and they, on their part, took whatever the sea offered, stoically, uncomplainingly; feeling that the sea brooked no resistance, that in non-resistance was their strength.
“A gale is coming out of the north over Newfoundland,” the voice of Trantor boomed out over the little throng, rousing the captain from his reminiscences.
“A gale is coming on the seventh of October of this year that you will never forget; a gale of such terrible force and so prolonged that it will confound every vessel in its path, be it man-o’-war or fishing smack.
"We have come to warn all of you fishermen, all of you sailors, to keep to the shore until it is over. You will have no other warning; out of a clear sky the wind will fall upon you, and the waves will rise to smite you, and if you have not heeded this warning you will all be lost in the waste places of the sea.
“And if you decry this warning, above your bleaching bones and the broken beams of your fishing boats the seas will rock with laughter and the winds will scorn to reveal the fate of all ye of little faith.”
The speaker paused, and the freshening breeze brought from seaward the boom of the surf, as the incoming tide rolled up the Bay of Fundy. It came as an echo of his words, this voice of the sea, and brought to every listener
the feeling of its nearness, the ever present power that lived in its inscrutable depths.
Without another word, the Trantor brothers picked up the meagre packs they had been carrying, and making their way through the little crowd, turned westward onto the St. George Road and so left the village behind them.
/^APTAIN DONALD SELLERS stood watching the ^ two men until they disappeared around the corner by Squire Halliday’s, then rousing himself with an effort from the brown study into which he had fallen, he turned toward the knot of villagers discussing the warning. The old man smiled guiltily to himself as he realized the momentary spell the two prophesiers had cast over him with their croakings of an October storm.
It was a safe guess, anyway, that there would be a good blow in October, perhaps several of them. The seventh of October would come when the mackerel season was about well begun. Would he, for a moment, think of losing the best of the catch on the off chance that these two strange men were right in their predictions? Besides, had he not weathered the worst of October storms before? The Sarah Elizabeth was scheduled to leave Lepreau the first of October, and leave she would.
Thus musing, he strode over to where Dora and her two admirers were discussing the prophecy. “You fellows seem to take these strangers pretty seriously,” he remarked with a sly wink at York beside him. “Whad d’ye say to shipping with me on the Sarah Elizabeth about the first of October when I go up to the gulf for mackerel?”
“Suits me,” said Jim Mealy, nonchalantly, giving Dora a look full of meaning. “I never went to sea before, but I certainly won’t stay ashore just because two lunatics dreamed of a gale.”
“What about ye, John?”
“I’ll go, too,” said Balsam slowly. ‘‘I’ll go, too, in spite of what those ‘two lunatics’ said.” He was looking directly at the captain, but his words and the tone in which he uttered them made Jim Mealy redden with sudden anger, an anger he was careful not to display before Dora.
But the girl had caught the difference in their replies, and she turned to John with a smile.
“You don’t seem overly anxious to go fishing mackerel.”
John Balsam turned and stared out over the little harbor below them a moment before replying. A score of gulls were wheeling out over the water above some object invisible from the shore, the sun gleaming on their long narrow wings as they banked and dipped. Far beyond them, to the southwest, the group of rocky islands known as ‘The Wolves’ loomed grey and indistinct in the afternoon light, a half-dozen dim forms that seemed to be coursing along the purple rim of the sea.
“I’ve always loved the sea,” he said slowly and earnestly, “and I reckon I always will. I love her almost as much as I hate her at times. Though I don’t understand her like mebbe these Trantors do, I know something of her strength and her treachery and her beauty.”
“Why, our John is almost a poet,” said Dora, turning to Mealy. “And do you know, I almost believe he’s right. I have often felt the same way about the sea myself.”
“She’s strong and treacherous enough,” spoke up the captain, “but ye can alius beat her, barrin’ mistakes. It’s the mistakes in seamanship as sends the best of ’em to the bottom. Me, I’ve never lost a ship or a man in over thirty year at sea.”
“I don’t blame John for not wanting to go,” Jim’s voice cut in, smooth and patronizing. “I would rather expect him to be a bit nervous after his shipwreck of last winter. And, of course, if we took any stock in such men as these Trantors, we would all lose our nerve a little, perhaps.”
“Afraid? You think I’m afraid?” asked John, striding up to Mealy. Then realizing that the other’s purpose was but to get him to make a fool of himself before Dora, and almost believing the girl enjoyed the baiting, he turned away as if to leave.
“Don’t run off, John,” spoke up York.
"Me, I’ve seen all kinds of men in all kinds of places, and I’ve never yet seen the man who wasn’t gen-u-inely affeered of somethin’ or other. Mebbe ’twas a gun carriage bustin’ loose in a heavy sea; mebbe 'twas the thoughts of passin’ old Cape Stiff in winter; mebbe ’twas jest the idee of going to have a tooth pulled. But what’s the difference what it is, sens we “She
all have it? Me, I ’ud think more of a man who was willin’ to go to sea when he b’leeved a storm was cornin’ than one lookin’ fer fair weather all the cruise.”
John turned back slowly, but Mealy, noticing the smoke of the approaching train, took Dora’s arm and walked away, the shadow of a sneer on his handsome face as he glanced back at the three men.
“I like best to judge a man after he’s been tested, d’yuh see?” remarked the captain watching the retreating couple. “But ’fore that, I can most generally make a good guess as t’ what he’s made of. Come now, John, what do you really think of them there prophesiers?” There was a knowing twinkle in the old man’s eyes as he spoke.
“I don’t know whether the Trantors are right or not,” John answered seriously, searching for words to make his meaning clear; “but I do know there are lots of things none of us understand and mebbe them two men can see further than us.”
“Didje hear what they said about the sea laughing above the bones of dead sailormen? That got me to thinkin’. Last winter, that time when the old Ceres and her captain and crew, all but me, went down out in the bay, and I was floatin’ toward shore on a bit of planking, why, somehow, I got the same idee. The skipper of the Ceres was a mean man, I think the meanest man I ever knew, but I took the dirt he handed me with my tongue in my cheek, it being my first voyage.”
The captain and York nodded understanding^, their minds racing back through the years to old ships and old skippers they had known.
“Well, sir,” John continued, “as I was holdin’ on to that plank, almost frozen and so weak that I hardly knew what I was doin’, somehow it seemed as if the waves were hootin’ and laughin’ over the skipper, and leapin’ and dancin’ about as if they was trompin’ him further under all the time. It was only what he deserved, mebbe, but it seemed most awful cruel and heartless.”
“The sea is a sassy jade,” was York’s comment.
“But a friend to the man what knows her,” added the captain.
“And his master always, I think,” concluded John as the three started for the postoffice.
DhNEATH a clear October sun, upon a sea of molten ^ glass, the Sarah Elizabeth slowly drifted off the north central shore of Prince Edward Island, closely reefed except for the loose fores’l, almost broadside to a scarcely perceptible breeze. y
The mackerel run was on. All hands on the Sarah Elizabeth were ranged along her windward deck with lines that pulled in the sturdy blue fish as fast as they could be hauled over the rail. Except for an occasional word passed or an exclamation now and then, the men were silent, intent upon their work.
It looked like a record run. Already the mackerel tubs on the for’ard deck were full, and Captain Sellers and his mate York were kept busy slitting and salting the fish into hogsheads as fast as their hands would let them “Makin’ hay while the sun shines, eh, Sam?” grinned the captain, looking over his well-stocked barrels. “We’ll have to head in to-morrer for more barrels.”
“That we will, sir,” replied York, shifting his quid to the other cheek and squinting out over the dazzling sea Captain Donald Sellers followed the glance of his mate, and leaned against a hogshead for a moment to rest from his arduous labor. He saw only the sleeping sea and the light blue sky in which, here and there a tiny wisp of cloud like a pinch of cotton, hung motionless and near and far the many fishing boats, resembling ducks feeding on a quiet mill pond. 8
“Do ye mind, Sam, that this is the seventh of October’” the captain queried, as he shaded his eyes for a moment from the sun’s glare.
“What of that?” asked the mate. “We’ve done ’most as well as this in four days of a run many’s the time though I don’t remember when the mackerel ever camé aboard quite as fast as they have today.”
The captain smiled. “To-day’s the day of the big blow the Trantors told us to look out for,” he reminded the mate, and swept his arm in a circle that included the other boats. “If all these boats go down, it will be from heavy cargoes of mackerel, I’m thinkin’. Didje ever see a finer seventh of October?” r
The mate snorted, turning back to his work.
Some of the men had heard the captain’s remarks, but most of them had noted the day long before, and had kept a weather eye cocked toward the northern horizon most of the time. They had to admit that the Trantors’ prediction had fallen through and they grinned a bit sheepishly to themselve as they remembered how hard it had been to argue them into shipping with the captain.
For the first time in his career, Captain Sellers had had difficulty in securing a crew of seven men for the Sarah Elizabeth. The mate he could reply upon, and Jim and John had given their words to go, but it was only after much scoffing and bullying about the predicted gale that four more had been won over.
The sea had been restless the day they left, but as the little Sarah Elizabeth had sailed down the Bay of Fundy before a fresh breeze from the northwest, a bone in her teeth, the men had laughed at their fears as they lined the rail and watched the playful waves chase each other along the boat’s sides. Yet, when the Sarah Elizabeth had swept past Yarmouth and rounded Cape Sable, and started on a northward tack, one of the men had remarked that the seas seemed to be holding them back, and more than one of them would gladly have changed places with those back in Lepreau who had refused to go.
Jim Mealy and John Balsam were not among these. Each, with the self-reliance of youth, had looked on the voyage as a great adventure, but with this difference, that while Jim sneered openly at the probability of the Trantors being right in their predictions, John’s face took on a sterner look when the subject was brought up, as if he were biding his time, neither credulous nor skeptical, but conscious of the power of the sea he loved.
The two young men were outwardly cordial to each other, but deep in their hearts, although neither realized it, were sprouting the seeds of a hatred older than civilization. Dora, on her part, ever had been undecided between the dashing, skeptical Jim and the more serious and thoughtful John, while her father had been careful not to favor, openly, either. “It’s for the girl to decide,” was about all he said, even to himself. However, just before the present cruise, he told the
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Laughter of the Sea
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somewhat tearful Dora frankly that he hoped there was some truth to the prophesy, so that he might have an opportunity to prove the mettle of the two.
“I would never marry a coward,” she had told her father, simply and directly, as was her way. “I want a husband who is brave and strong like you.”
Now, as the rapidly dipping sun threw the shadow of the Sarah Elizabeth far out over the quiet waters, and the boat rocked gently and silently to the scarcely noticeable swell, John wondered a bit at the stillness in the air, the feeling of hushed expectancy that brooded over the ocean.
Far in the west, a light purplish haze began to settle over the water. Soon, the sun would dip beneath the sea, and the countless riding lights of the fishing boats would twinkle in the gathering darkness, and the tired men would straighten their aching backs and go below for their evening meal and later a pipe, perhaps, on deck before turning in.
John’s gaze swept upward to where the fading sunlight gleamed on the painted spars, and thought of Dora back in Lepreau. This was a life he was beginning to love; the fresh salty breezes of the mornings, the hard work in the open air all day, and then the gathering gloom of the evenings, when the shadows crept soundlessly around the little fishing boat, and the waves whispered softly along the sides, and the stars winked jovially between the swaying masts. Idly, he noticed the little clouds, far above, hurry away to the southwest, as though anxious to get home before dark. Yet, not a breath of air played over the warm decks or sang the old familiar songs of the rigging.
“All hands below, sung out the captain, and with one accord the men straightened their hulking bodies and prepared to leave their work. Mechanically, they secured their lines to the rail and turned to the hatchway, from which the smell of salt pork and boiled cabbage had been coming to them in increasingly strong doses.
“Send my grub up here,” the captain called after them. He had, with his usual tireless generosity, apportioned to himself the first watch of the night.
When the fishing was good, as it had been for these past four days, all hands were called on deck at the first peep of day and stayed at their posts until the gathering dusk made the landing of the fish uncertain by tired, aching hands. The noon meal was served to them at their posts, but at night they shuffled to their places on the benches down below.
John Balsam brought the captain his supper of salt pork, cabbage and hard biscuit, along with a cup of rum the captain called for. He grinned wearily as the captain settled himself on the deck, his •back to the wheel, his supper-dishes between his extended legs.
“Well, John,” he remarked cheerfully, “.the seventh of October is here, and not such a terrible blow after all.”
John smiled back. “It’s not the eighth yet,” was all he said.
Down in the stuffy little coop below, the men good naturedly drew lots to see who would take the watch at midnight. They had to draw three times before Jim drew the ace of spades and settled the matter. Soon, the lantern was hung out on the hatchway ladder and the men rolled into their bunks. A pipe glowed redly in the darkness, a few sleepy words were exchanged, and then all was silence below decks, except for the deep breathing of the sleepers and the scurrying of an occasional ship rat.
CAPTAIN DONALD SELLERS paced the after deck alone. A faint, cool breeze began to fan his cheek, making his pipe bowl glow in the gloom. In spite of his tired body, he felt masterful, lordly, as he walked about the deck of his own little kingdom and noted that everything was ship shape. . , , ,
He loved the Sarah Elizabeth, a staunch English-built vessel of forty tons, pointed at both ends and known as a pinky. She would skim before the wind like a whitewinged bird when her sails were set, lor her heart was light. Always when riding at anchor she seemed but waiting, ready always for flight; light, trim, expectant. A gust of wind out of the north sud-
denly struck the ship and filled her loose fores’l. She turned on her keel like a gull on the crest of a wave, then her fores’l flopped disconsolately. It was only a gypsy breeze.
A black shred of cloud whipped across the crescent of the moon. Behind it the captain saw a dim bank of heaped cloud forms. Another gust, stronger than the first, wheeled the vessel on her tack, then raced on over the moonlit waters, leaving a silver rippled path in its wake. The old skipper watched it pass with a knowing smile. A blow was coming.
He looked at his watch by the light of the hatchway lantern. It was just eleven o’clock. Leisurely, he walked toward the for’rd rail better to scan the sky, but did not reach it.
In an instant, the gale struck with terrible fury. The ship lurched forward, shivering through her entire hulk. Captain Sellers picked himself up by the open hatch.
“All hands on deck” he roared down the yawning black hole.
“Aye, aye, sir,” came back from the hatchway, and almost at the same time York hove in view from the shadows. The captain took his stand at the fores’l tackle.
“John, to the jib there, jump!”
“George, Sam, double reef the fores’l!”
“Pete, mind that tackle!”
“Make everything snug and tight!”
“Jim,” bellowed the captain above the hovd of the wind as he saw a white-faced form shrinking in the shadow of the hatch, “out with you and help John with that jib, quick!”
As if stung with a lash Jim emerged from the shadows, but the flesh was too weak. A gigantic mountain of tortured water upreared beside the Sarah Elizabeth and shouldered the little craft aside, but, as its wind streaked crest toppled and cascaded down across the slanting decks, Jim Mealy hurled himself backward into the little hatchway with a cry of horror, beaten at the first blow by the sea he had despised.
For one brief moment the seething waters, churned suddenly into a lather of white foam, gleamed ghostly in the uncertain light; then, as though a giant hand had snuffed a candle, the sable cloud wrack swept across the moon and the cold darkness leaped down the shrieking wind to envelope the struggling ship. The Sarah Elizabeth heeled far over, a million snarling demons clutching at her rigging while the air was filled with the stinging spindrift and the waters hissed spitefully alongside.
The wind was steady now; cold, powerful, relentless. As the Trantors had predicted, the sea did not rise slowly with the storm, but formed into mighty ridges without warning, as though some gigantic monster on the ocean bpd had writhed in sudden agony and hurled the waters above him into a welter of shapes.
John, six feet out beyond the foredeck, hanging onto the end of the jib boom, was immersed to the armpits as the pinky dipped into a rolling mountain of cold salt water, then rose again on a wave crest so high that he felt he had been shot miles into the air. Clinging grimly to the boom and shroud, he crawled somehow back to the deck through the stinging spray, but not until the jib had been tightly doublereefed. His hands were stiff and bleeding as he fought his way to the hatch.
At the wheel, erect, with feet planted wide apart, the old captain stood, braced against the gale and the heaving of the deck. Grimly, he listened to the groan of the straining tackle and felt the laboring decks beneath him as the Sarah Elizabeth was hurled down, far down, into the comparative quiet of the black depths, only to rise drunkenly again and roll almost helpless before the unswerving gale. A double reef had been taken in the fores’l and this was all the canvas showing. The tack was doing very little good. The roll of the giant waves and the relentless drive of the wind, combined to hurl the little vessel toward the reefs to the south, southwest. There was nothing the crew could do now, except to struggle out of the pitching hatchway to make fast a loosened line or tie down a flapping clew.
All night long, the gallant Sarah Elizabeth struggled on, the skies above her a tortured blackness, the water beneath her
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a chaos of swirling foam, and about her the gale, a thousand tongued monster that echoed and re-echoed the harsh laughter of the sea. All night long the tight-lipped captain clung to the wheel of his ship, and the crew below waited, white-faced, for the thunder of the breakers, and Jim Mealy lay shivering in his bunk, his terror-stricken face close pressed against the blankets.
The rhythmic pounding of the waves against the sides of the sturdy little ship was punctuated occasionally by the resounding roar of a heavier sea breaking across her deck. Sometime during the night, one wave, higher than the others, struck the pinky with such force that the deck was cleared, bulwarks and all.
Sam York and John Balsam, followed by two others, cautiously crawled out of the hatch after that ominous rending and ripping that paralyzed them for the moment. They ran tackle from the end of the fores’l to the weather rail and left John at the tackle to keep the sail full. All knew that if that fores’l slackened for one instant, it would be in shreds the next, and their last hope would be gone. By lashing a mackerel tub to the mainmast, the man on deck could take refuge in it and grip the sides when the heavier seas struck the deck.
Hour after hour, John and the captain remained at their posts, buffeted by the wind and water, neither knowing whether the other was still alive or not.
Finally, the black shadows thinned a bit and the heaving seas overside became visible through the flying spray as they shouldered their way past the staggering Sarah Elizabeth, hurrying her on with them toward the reefs and death. Sam York made his way to the wheel and relieved the protesting captain, who shouted that he could outlast the gale but whose words were lost in the roar of wind and waves. George Brewer took the fores’l tackle line from Balsam’s numbed fingers, and John made his way aft almost in a daze.
The captain met him at the hatchway and knew for the first time who had shared the night on deck with him. He thumped the younger man’s shoulder in approval and was slipping into the blackness of the hatchway when John drew him back. Through the gloom, a black form bore down upon them from windward, and the two men stood with set faces as a schooner of a hundred tons, her canvas in ribbons and her decks swept clean by the waves, hurtled past their bows, less than twenty fathoms distant.
“She will beat us to the rocks by a few hours anyway, lad,” the captain shouted hoarsely as the two men made their way into the tiny cabin and received a welcome pot of hot coffee.
The old captain gave one look at the trembling form of Jim Mealy and passed without a word to the tiny after cabin he shared with Sam York, while John, feeling that he would never sleep again while the world lasted, wearily sank down on his bunk and gripped the stay chains to keep from rolling off, falling asleep in five minutes.
OUTSIDE, the gale continued unabated, and the waves seemed even more mountainous. Alone in a world of mist and spray, the Sarah Elizabeth plunged on, struggling like a living thing against the urge of the wind and sea. Her beams, of sturdy English oak, groaned, and her stout double reefed fores’l wailed loudly as she fought every inch of the way to keep on her tack and veer away from the reefs ahead.
And ever as she slid down the steep, gray-green slopes of the mighty ocean valleys, far above her on the wild windbitten crests, plunged and galloped the white horses of the sea. And ever above the scream of the taut rigging and the hiss of the wind-driven spume, the vibrant air was filled with countless differing voices that blended into a wild, mad, organtoned bellow, the roaring laughter of the sea. . , ,
Noon came, with the captain back at the wheel. Only a few hours remained, he knew, before the Sarah Elizabeth would be on the reefs, unless her course could be changed. He sensed, rather than felt, a slight lessening of the wind, though the rolling waves seemed to mount ever higher and higher.
Captain Donald Sellers peered through the stinging spray at the giant waves about him that sported with the little
pinky like a boisterous stream plays with a dry chip. He might scoff at the Trantors’ warning of a gale; when ashore he might make light of the sea and its power; at times he even told himself that his will was stronger than the sea’s; but when in the teeth of the blast, his little ship riding out a terrific blow, no sailor was quicker to grasp every advantage nor keener to discern any opportunity whereby he might outwit the sea.
So now, standing on the wave-swept decks of the Sarah Elizabeth, his watchful eye endeavored to pierce the flying spray and study the great gray immensity about him, to see how far to leeward waited the black roaring reefs; to con wind and wave that no chance for safety should escape him.
Almost unconsciously, his mind was noting every movement of the little pinky, and suddenly a wild thought flashed across his mind, an almost impossible idea which, if acted upon, might mean salvation, but which would mean, probably, the swamping of the tiny vessel in the heavy seas.
On the crest of every giant wave, the Sarah Elizabeth heeled far over, while the salt spray drove across the decks in level, pitiless lines; but when the pinky reeled down into the trough, she was momentarily becalmed in the lee of the ridge behind her. This very fact gave him the idea. If he could change the tack to the south, southeast, if he could veer away from the reefs toward which they were inevitably drifting, perhaps he could ride out the storm. The wind was already slackening and, he believed, had veered a point or two to the east.
How near the reefs were he did not know, yet close now they must be, and escape on the tack he now held was impossible. Captain Sellers was not one to hesitate. Waiting until the pinky had dropped down under the protection of a gigantic wave, he spun the wheel. It gave easily at first, then yielded only to his determined pressure from spoke to spoke. Then the mountain of water sank beneath them and they were shot high on the crest of a mighty wave into the teeth of the gale again. *
For a moment, as they rose on the wave, a black doubt as to the wisdom of his act chilled the captain; for a second the double reefed fores’l had flapped and he felt that it must have been slit into shreds. But the canvas was far stouter than that usually set to fishing craft and it held. As he wiped the salty spray from his eyes, the old captain saw that his ruse had been successful. Reeling dangerously though she was, the Sarah Elizabeth was holding to her new tack.
It seemed to the skipper that now the spindrift shot from the snapping wave crests with a spiteful sting, that the roar of the wind had turned into a baffled snarl, and that the seas crashed against the little craft in a kind of helpless rage.
Youth came back to the weary captain then, and he stamped his chilled feet on the swaying deck and shook a triumphant fist at the churning seas. Too tired to shout above the roar of the gale, and yet determined to remain at the wheel until the success of his plan was assured, he waved York away when the mate came to relieve him.
And, as if in answer to the wordless defiance he hurled at the storm, a mighty sea swept down over the deck and threw him half senseless against the wheel, then swirled on its relentless way, taking no heed to the tiny craft that emerged slowly from the welter of beaten foam behind it.
The afternoon wore on, and still the grim old sailor clung to the tugging wheel and listened tensely for the thunder of the reefs to leeward. Darkness settled around the tossing ship and for one brief moment a star winked through a rift in the black clouds above. The gale was blowing itself out.
Daylight came, and the wind had greatly abated. The mountainous waves that still roared around the Sarah Elizabeth were no longer beaten into a froth at their crests, and far off to port a strip of blue sky showed a break in the clouds.
The captain met John as he swung from the hatchway ladder and steadied himself for a plunge into the bunk room.
“We’re going to make it, lad,” he greeted the boy kindly. “Unless my dead reckoning is wrong we should pass East Point before night and be in St. George’s Bay; and then home again where ye can tell them all of cornin’ through the worst
gale ever Cap’n Sellers seen in all his years at sea.”
“Mr. York told me it was the hardest blow he’d ever known,” the younger man replied. “I guess the Trantors were right.”
“Perhaps,” mused the captain. “An’ it was ye, an’ not Jim that seemed to take the most stock in ’em. ’Course, for me, I take the day as it comes, yuh see, an’ with good oak decks below me an’ stout cloth above, I reckon I’ll ask no odds of the sea.”
“I still think it’s the sea as decides,” John said simply.
“Mebbe, mebbe, but the gale’s blowin herself out now—an’ John,” as the young man turned to go, “I want ye to know that next to Sam York, who’s been with me for over two year now, I reckon I’d ruther hev ye fer a shipmate than most anybody I know.”
That was the only praise the old man ever gave him, but no squire dubbed knight by his king could ever have held his head higher than did John as the captain shouldered his way past him after voicing his approval.
He did not see the look of hatred that Jim Mealy gave him as the captain spoke, nor did he even glance at the other as he made his way toward his bunk. But just before gaining the narrow ledge that promised a well-earned rest he tripped and fell headlong, his face striking the rough corner of the jamb as he fell. Jarred and dizzy he struggled to his feet, feeling the warm blood running down his cheek from a ragged cut near the temple.
Whirling to see what had tripped him, he glimpsed Jim Mealy’s face turned toward him with a hateful leer, and noted that Mealy’s right leg was dangling over the side of his bunk. He stepped toward the other’s bunk as Jim jerked himself ¡ erect, steadying himself by holding onto the edge of an upper bunk.
In the narrow space between the bunks the two men faced each other, John aroused at last to a burning rage at the other, Jim confident of his superiority in any personal encounter. The dim light of the swaying lantern, hung from a snap set in the ceiling, outlined the face of first one and then the other.
“What did you mean—Balsam began, but the mocking laugh of the other cut him off. Jim’s eyes blazed with an almost insane light, a madness born of many emotions. He had seen the seas rise, as the Trantors had predicted, to mock his vaunted courage; he had heard the words of praise the captain had given his hated rival and had felt the cold scorn of the captain’s glance; last of all, he had begun to realize that, with every beat of the waves outside, the love of Dora Sellers was slipping through his fingers.
So, drinking the dregs of disillusionment and finding them bitter as death, and hating himself, the pitiless storm, and most of all that blood-smeared face before him, he laughed again, hysterically, and laughing, struck with all his strength.
John staggered back against the doorway, wiping his battered lips, and came back, his head down, his arms working backward and forward with the clumsy movements of the untrained fighter. Jim was at least ten pounds the heavier and had the advantage of a longer reach and some training in the science of self defence; also, Jim had not endured the strain put upon the other by the buffeting waters, the stinging spray, and the numbing exposure from long watches on deck. Wherefore he laughed again and struck, sidestepping John’s piston-like drive at his head.
John, the stronger of the two, but encumbered by his swishing oilskins, bored in again. Before his eyes was a red tinged mist through which he could see only the leering face of Jim Mealy appear and disappear as the pinky rose and dipped. His rush forced Jim back until the other felt the little table behind him; then despite the sting of blows rained on his face and shoulders, John grappled, and the two swayed backward and forward around the narrow cabin between the bunks. The others, roused by the fight, crawled from their blankets and swung the bunks up against the wall, giving the two men more room.
Shouts of encouragement and advice were hurled at the battlers, but neither heard. Jim broke away again, and with a full right swing dropped John, a huddled heap, in the corner. But Balsam rose slowly to his feet, shaking the blood and sweat from his eyes, and the two men met in the middle of the cabin.
It was a strange battle, like the meeting of two monsters in a weird dream. The roar of the gale outside drowned the stamping of feet and the thudding of blows, and the two men strove as if in an awful silence. Again and again, John reeled back from the other’s well planted blows, but ever returned to the fight, weary but unconquered.
A look of surprise and uncertainty appeared in Mealy’s eyes as he readjusted his estimate of this man who kept coming back after each blow, who, though beaten, would not admit defeat. Was it to end thus, after all; was he to lose the sweet satisfaction of seeing his rival lying conquered at his feet? He missed a right to John’s chin, and a gasp almost like a sigh escaped him as Balsam grappled again and he felt the other’s powerful arms crushing against his ribs. His short arm jabs were useless and his breath began to come in gasps as Balsam bent him backward the while he gripped his powerful arms tighter.
The inner door opened and Captain Sellers stood watching the struggle, but no one noticed him. Then as Mealy made one last effort to free himself from the arms that were crushing him, the sea, laughing it seemed at these two tiny creatures that groped for each other’s throats while death danced on the waves in the gale without, rose in jest and hurled the little ship on her beam ends.
The two fighters crashed across the cabin and fell headlong against the lee side in a welter of blankets and slickers and sea boots. John slowly rose to his feet as the pinky righted herself, but Jim remained where he fell, his head against an upright beam. Balsam clutched at a bunk and stood panting as the captain entered the cabin.
“John,” he rasped in a cold, hard voice, “it’s high time ye had the wheel.”
Balsam pulled the flaps of his torn slicker together, searched on the floor for his sou’wester, and turned to the hatchway without a word, but as he left he heard the captain roar: “Pick that carkiss up and lash it to the bunk if; need be. When*he comesto let me know.”
The salt spray stung John’s battered face as he gained the deck and made his way aft to the wheel, but he paid no attention to York’s questioning gaze as the mate lashed him fast. He gasped the cold air into his laboring lungs and looked out over the wind torn ridges of water, a sudden peace settling over his heart. “It was the sea that decided after all,” he muttered to himself, but in his soul was a new found happiness born not of the sea nor of the storm. Twice he had been victor; first over himself, and then over his cowardly rival who now lay limp in the cabin below him. Perhaps yet another victory would be his.
The racing waves about the pinky seemed more friendly now, and the blue rift in the clouds was growing larger. His heart sang, and the danger and dread and hatred of the past forty-eight hours were forgotten.
“First we’ll go to Eastport, to Eastport, to Eastport,” the wind sang in the rigging. “First we’ll go to Eastport, an’ then back home.”
Home, where Dora waited for her father, and, perhaps—for him. Only a few days and he would feel the shingle of Lepreau harbor under his feet again and smell the old familiar odors of the little fishing village.
THE westering sun broke through the clouds and lit up the gray waters till the lifting swells shone blue-black and the foam that laced the heaving seas gleamed white as snow. For a moment John stared over the empty wastes of sea in a kind of awe. Of all the fishing vessels that had been there but two days before, not one was now visible. Had all of them been as fortunate as they? The miracle of their escape came home to him then and he breathed a prayer of thankfulness, while the wind tugged at his sou’wester and slapped his oilskins about his legs and bade him listen to the song it sang.
“We’re going home by Eastport, an’ see the shops of Eastport,
We’ll stay a day in Eastport, an’ buy our love a ring.”
So the heedless wind sang, and the hissing seas chuckled alongside and thumped gleefully at the stout planks.
Due south, a black line was visible through the haze in that direction. It was
the shore of Prince Edward Island, and although the Sarah Elizabeth was drifting closer, it seemed certain that she would swing clear of East Point and escape the breakers that dashed against its black rocks.
The strong wind sported with the pinky now and hurried her on her way. The sinking sun played on the waters and hurled grotesque shadows across the leaping waves. Closer and closer drew the long black coastline, and John could almost hear the breakers as the sun dropped out of sight.
To the west, a red glow marked where
the sun had set, and aboye, the sky was flaked with golden edged clouds, while to the east a deep purple band welded sea and sky together.
John turned to see the captain standing beside him.
Through a glorious golden sunset, the Sarah Elizabeth rode on a magnificent painted picture of colorful ocean and sky, while from the starboard quarter, where a long white line of foam against a black headland marked East Point, there came faintly to their ears above the strumming of the rigging and the hiss of the curling waves, the deep-toned laughter of the sea.