The Road to Fortune
Brothers of the sea, they shared the same longing. Home for Christmas! A powerful tale of the Atlantic and its sailormen
THOMAS H. RADDALL
WHEN young Rutherford caught sight of his new home, he whistled softly and told himself by way of comfort that, after all, Romance (like gold) was "where you found it.”
The Malagash lay at the end of a long and dirty pier, a grubby iron coffin with a stump of funnel, and she was coated in black slush—the result of a mésalliance between coal dust and snow. She was a 2,000-ton tramp chartered in the coal trade out of Sydney. Nova Scotia, plying to Montreal in summer and to Newfoundland and southern ports in winter. During the brief interval between close of navigation in the St. Lawrence and the freeze-up in Conception Bay, Newfoundland, she freighted coal and sundry supplies to the Wabana iron mines and brought home cargoes of dusty red ore for the steel plants at Sydney.
It was not an inspiring itinerary, but her officers liked it well enough; for they had established their families in Sydney, where they saw them frequently, and in the course of a long time charter the Malagash had developed a mysterious homing instinct which brought her to the familiar pier in good time for holidays, and kept her tied there much longer than the charterers liked.
Nobody knows how these things happen, but they happen. The charterers grew tired of wrestling with this phenomenon and murmured at last to the owners, who reasoned shrewdly enough that a transfer of captains might solve the problem, and thought at once of Captain Robert Merkel.
Merkel was a crusty old man with a tight-lipjxd mouth and an audible contempt for the times and the manners. Men said he was a relic of the Bluenose square-riggers; that in his younger days he was a proper hard case, a readyfisted bucko of a type now vanished from the seas, and that his wife had run away with a steamer man in the days when steam was young. Change had forced Captain Merkel into the steam he despised, where he scathed his officers and harried his engineers: but he retained his Bluenose instinct for keeping a ship on the move, and the owners loved him. Because of this love, they sent him to the Malagash with instructions to ‘‘shake things up a bit.” It was mid-December, and the Malagash schedule was moving in a mysterious way its wonders to perform. The iron ore voyages had been made. There was a short trip to Halifax in view, and a blithe return which would bring her to Sydney for the delightful period between December 25 and January 1. It was a prospect lovely to contemplate; but when her deposed captain, that uxorious man. descended the gangplank with his chronometer under his arm and took a last regretful look at the Malagash. the schedule vanished with him. A sudden madness of the charterers and the baleful energy of a new skipper combined to cast off her lines on December 18, just as the snug families at Sydney were pulling up their chairs for supper.
The abducted husbands of the Malagash looked sadly on the twinkling lights astern, regretfully ujxm the tramcars creeping like glowworms by the Lingan Road, and spitefully at the red glare of the blast furnaces beyond Whitney Pier; for they were bound on an unexpected, preposterous voyage to the iron mines of Newfoundland.
Christmas would lx* spent at Wabana. that straggle of unpainted houses shuddering in the wintry winds on the bleak table of Bell Island.
The ship would lie under a steep cliff at the south side of the island, receiving ore slowly from an endless-belt conveyor, and those with a taste for Wabana night life would have to tramp three miles across a frozen swamp to the town. They could ride, if they wished, on empty ore trucks returning by cable railway to the mine; but the trucks w’ent at a snail’s pace, groaning across the wintry flat, and the red ore dust made ineradicable stains on shore-going clothes.
The future was dark, and the sea, running heavily after a Gulf storm as they passed the Sydney heads, did not add to their joys. The dumpy collier, laden to her winter marks, squattered along like a Labrador retriever. She had an uncomfortable gait, meeting the steep seas with a swooping
dive, shouldering broken water aside, and sitting down in the ruins.
Young Rutherford came on deck for a breath of the keen air before turning in, and promptly found something to worry him. The aerial, drooping low over the funnel from the short masts, described a series of dizzy arcs in the night. The lead-in wdre had felt old and fragile to his exploring fingers that morning, and the coal shoots, loading slings, and general scramble of departure had afforded no opportunity to rig a new one. He was sure that a half-inch gathering of frozen sleet on the long span w’ould bring it to the deck with a clatter, and rigging a new aerial at sea would be something to write home about.
It was a cold thought, and he withdrew to the warmth of his cabin, a stuffy little box, aired and lighted by a single porthole, and heated by a stinking steam radiator. The
receiving apparatus occupied much of a small table against the forward bulkhead, leaving scant room for his key and message pads. He was a cheerful young man who had been brought up on a diet of Herman Melville, Captain Marryat. and R. M. Ballantyne. and he had come to the sea with a dim notion that some day he would write about it himself. Like all young men with such illusions, he was a copious diarist, and he pulled out his cherished record for an entry.
‘‘Friday. December 18 Boarded S.S. Malagash at Sydney this morning. A dirty little tub with cargo for the iron mines—coal, some bales of pressed hay, and a few dozen cases of dynamite. Sailed six p.m. Never saw a gloomier crowd.
"Abercrombie, chief officer, a morose man of about fifty, very bald. Has false teeth for both jaws, which he installs for meals; goes about the rest of the time with his lips tucked into his mouth and his chin on intimate terms wdth his nose. Has a family in Sydney, and is putting a son through college. Biddle, the second, a plump man. very red in the face; believes the British race is descended from the Israelites, and is very fond of gardening. A family man, of course. The third, Forchu, is an Acadian from Isle Madame. Speaks with a strong French accent. Another family man. Chief Engineer Somers, also a family man.
"Whole outfit seem to spend their sea time playing forty-five and counting the days between ports. Skipper
is a lone wolf, a bitter old man with no ties of any sort, so far as anybody knows. Sees no virtue in a world without sails and yards, though he’s been in steam for fifteen years. Wears a brown suit and fur cap, but came aboard today freezing his ears in a derby hat.
“I have the only uniform on board. Had a tailor remove the navy braid and buttons and substitute merchant service ditto, but have decided not to wear it. Old Merkel saw it hanging behind my door and asked if I’d been doorman at the Strand Palace, and if I’d come to sea to wear out my old clothes.”
rT'HE FIRST sea morning throbbed its hours away in monotony. The northwest weather of the past few days had subsided to a stark calm, with the thermometer hovering about zero. The collier’s superstructure was sparkling with frost, and her bow and sides, licked by the northerly swell, had acquired a sheath of ice, the frigid purity of which hid the caked coal dust and red-lead patches. The sea was an infinity of steep smooth swells, moving southward in orderly ranks to shatter themselves below the horizon on the grim cliffs of Cape Breton. They were verdant in the bright December sunshine, like rolling hills of a translucent green marble, flawed with veins of white and the glitter of bubbles, but they moved with the polished ease of oil. The ship’s wake marred their viscid surface with a roiled streak, trailing astern as far as the eye could reach.
Mr. Abercrombie noted it with narrowed eyes, had a peep at the bridge thermometer, and told himself grimly that the sheltered waters of Conception Bay would be freezing in this weather, and Old Merkel would have some
anxious moments getting out again with his cargo of iron ore.
In the afternoon, in the hour sacred to siesta on all properly conducted ships, Rutherford’s door opened suddenly, and a blast of keen air fluttered his log sheets. Old Merkel stood there, feet very large in black felt arctics, wearing a long grey overcoat and a black astrakhan hat. He looked like a Cossack.
“You got any ice warnings for this area?” The wireless operator lifted surprised brows.
“Ice? No, sir. What is it? Field ice?”
The Old Man surveyed him with contempt, as if he had been asleep at his post. “Come out an’ take a look. Mebbe your eyes are better’n your ears.”
From the deck, with a trenchant air eating through his clothes to the shrinking flesh, Rutherford saw a faint blur of white in the grey-green waste ahead. Captain Merkel passed his glasses, saying sternly, as if it were all the wireless operator’s fault, “It’s a grow-ler, that’s what.”
Through the binoculars a low pale shape was visible, surrounded by a creamy collar of broken water. After a full minute of scrutiny Rutherford said, “Funny. It’s heaving quite a bit with the sea.”
The Old Man snorted. “With all that heft under water? Not in this sea. Shows how much you know!” He recovered the glasses and took a prolonged stare himself. There was a clatter of boots from the wheelhouse.
“Somethin' mighty queer about that thing!” shouted the mate.
“WTiat do you think is the matter with it?” growled Merkel.
'“pHERE’S another fella!” cried ^ the mate sharply. “And another!” Tiny black mannikins crept singly from a misshapen igloo at the stern of the derelict and stood in a group, motionless.
She was a sorry thing. Her foremast had gone about three feet above the deck. Of the mainmast there wras no trace. She was like an iced cake in a baker’s window, but with the icing clumsily applied, so that the lines and angles of her cabin hatch and the remnants of her deck furniture were converted into grotesque domes and cylinders. She moved sluggishly with the smooth green breasts of the sea, and at long intervals a swell [x>ured over her icy armor, like a slow hand fumbling for a chink in it.
Captain Merkel slammed the wheelhouse door and fumbled with his Cossack hat, pulling furry flaps down over his ears.
“Five,” Abercrombie said. "We gotta take ’em off, I guess.”
The Old Man grunted, and squinted into his binoculars. “Where’s their dory, eh? She’s like a half-tide rock. They could put off a dory easy enough.”
“Gone,” the mate said. “They’d keep it on the main hatch. There’s a hunk of ice abaft the stump o' the foremast, but that’s the hatch, I guess. She’s been swept clean.”
Old Merkel thrust out a truculent underlip and sucked meditatively at tiny icicles dripping from the eaves of his mustache. “Take ’em off, uh? D’ye think this buncha Sydney wharf rats could pull a boat over there?”
The mate jerked his head aft. “I’ll take a boat over, if we can get one down to the water. The falls are caked in ice.”
A squall came out of the north like a messenger from the bygone storm, sw-eeping a curtain of snow before it, shattering the frigid calm. It stung their faces with Continued on page 27
Abercrombie turned his head and squinted with watering eyes at the distant object. “Well, sir, it don’t look right an’ it don’t act right.” Old Merkel examined the pale dot again. “Humph. You’re right —for once. It’s a hull, covered with ice. There’s a bit o’ spar stickin’ up, forrard.”
Abercrombie ran into the wheelhouse and came back fumbling with the screw of his own binoculars. “Right,” he said. “What’s keepin’ her afloat, d’ye s’pose?”
“Lumber,” grunted the skipper positively. “One o’ them Lunenburgers freightin’ lumber to Noofun-land, s’likely.” He took down his glasses grimly. “Another windjammer gone west, mister. There’s a sight for your steamboat eyes.” Abercrombie said nothing for a moment. His steamboat eyes gazed, fascinated, through the binoculars.
“Funny time o’ year to be freightin’ timber to Noo-fun-land. Proper iceberg, ain’t she? I can see the stump o’ the foremast now. Yeh. An’ somethin’ down aft, by the cabin house.”
Captain Merkel twiddled the adjusting screw of his glasses. “Uh? Yeah. Somethin’ dark there. Movin’, too. Almost looks—by gad, mister, it’s a man, movin’ about down aft!”
Rutherford’s teeth rattled. His face and fingers were blue, but there was no thought in his eager mind of the warm bridgecoat hanging in his cabin a few steps away. A man! On that thing! It was preposterous, a snatch from an old book, like mermaids and sea serpents and Flying Dutchmen, Captain Merkel vanished into the wheelhouse, silent in his felt boots, and startled the drowsy quartermaster with a shout. The steering engine clattered busily. The Malagash approached the stranger’s leeif so small and forlorn a marine waif could be said to have a . leeand, with a muffled jangle of bells, reduced speed until her engines were barely turning over.
Continued on page 27
Continued from page 11—Starts on page 10
particles of cold-weather snow, like fine shot, and set up a banshee wail in the aerial wires. The forlorn object to windward vanished behind the white portieres.
“She’s gone!” bellowed Captain Merkel. But someone—it was Forchu’s voice—• cried, “There she ees!” and her white carcass rode slowly into sight from one of the spray-whipped valleys. The squall died in a volley of hard snow.
The Old Man put his glasses up again. “They’re all there,” he rumbled. “One— two—three—four—yes, an’ five.”
Abercrombie pulled down the peak of his faded Brighton cap and settled the warm lugs closer about his ears. “Well?” he murmured.
Old Merkel turned to him sharply. “Well, mister? Whatcha waitin’ for? Gonna be dark in a coupla hours. Rouse up some o’ them dock wallopers forrard an’ start ’em knockin’ ice off the boat falls.”
The mate stepped to the rail, roaring over the well-deck, and a group on the forecastle slithered down the ladders and came aft warily. The forward deck was like a skating rink. The stark calm of zero weather settled in the wake of the squall, filling the void between sea and sky with an embracing silence, a breathless hush of expectancy. The sterile sunshine crept abroad again, and the long gleaming swells went by in their interminable march.
The men chopped and hammered busily at the crusted boat and falls.
“Who’s goin’, boys?” called the mate.
“I’ll take ’er,” Biddle said.
“I’m takin’ ’er,” said Abercrombie quietly. “What about it, boys? Turvey? Peters? M’Avity?”
Young Rutherford watched their faces curiously. Romance! The Romance of the Sea. encountered magically on the first afternoon of an unpropitious voyage. They would, of course, cast a fierce look at the sea and then step forward with eager shouts, crying that they were single, or could swim, clamoring for the chance of danger, as men did in books. But the “Sydney dock wallopers,” apparently, knew very little about books. They did not look at the sea at all. They gazed mutely at themselves, and then nodded slowly one to another, and turned at last to the mate with the blank stare of men in a trance. The mate moved first.
“All you fellas got mittens? Good. Better rustle up some life belts.”
M’Avity said quickly, “Not me. Can’t swim in them things. If we capsize I wanna take to m’ fins.”
“Don’t be a durn fool,” Abercrombie said. “You couldn’t swim three strokes in that water. This is Christmas, not Dominion Day. Get your life belts, all of you.”
The absence of his false teeth gave him the tight-lipped expression of a man about to do or die, the proper grimace of a book hero. He said casually, as if to deprecate such magnificent resolves, “Swell’s not bad. The job’s a cinch.”
Old Merkel growled testily, “It’s the ship you gotta be afraid of, mister. If she catches the edge o’ her platin' on your gunnel with a roll to port, she’ll capsize ye like that.” He essayed a snap of his mittened fingers.
Abercrombie nodded absently. “You’ll make a bit o’ lee for us, sir?”
The Old Man nodded his Cossack hat toward the derelict. “Yeah. She ain’t makin’ any lee herself. If it comes up another snow squall we’ll prob’ly fall on top o’ her, but that’s a chance we gotta take. There’s not much daylight left— you better get goin’, mister.”
THE collier took position for launching her boat perhaps three hundred yards from the wreck. The acrid ribbon from her funnel, drifting lazily in the still air, carried a reek of Sydney coal to the
huddled men there. The boat went down in a series of awkward jerks, with Abercrombie and the rough-hewn M’Avity fending off. The men slid down life lines slung from the davit span and arranged themselves on the thwarts.
“Take your time, boys,” Old Merkel said. A sea licked up the collier’s flank, raised the boat gently as it hung in the falls, and then flung it violently against the plating. The men were tipped right and left over the thwarts, and an oar blade went to matchwood. “Look out!” cried the Old Man. Abercrombie was looking out. Another swell grew rapidly beneath them. He spoke once, quickly, urgently. The falls lost their tautness as a smooth green slope came up to the boat, and this time they were cast off. neatly. Abercrombie rejected the neat rudder with a single glance and took an oar, fending off sturdily with the others. They dropped dizzily with the receding swell and the boat’s head swung outward. A sea lifted them again, drove the stern against the Malagash with a mighty thump, crushing the neat rudder completely.
“Pull!” roared the Old Man.
The boat seemed shrunk to a toy. It crawled painfully up a glassy shoulder of water like an eight-legged bug and slid into the trough beyond. The rowers pulled automatically, staring up at Abercrombie’s unshaven jowl, watching his forwardlooking eyes. They did not look at the sea; for the steep oily swells had taken on a menacing appearance in this new perspective, and they knew that the boat had never been in the water except for brief annual inspections. It was comfort they wanted, the lonely men in the coal-stained boat, and they found it in Abercrombie’s quiet eyes and in the unexpected skill of his strong hands—the hands which grew the best roses in Cape Breton. The mate used his oar with a supreme confidence in which they recognized the ease of custom.
“Done it afore!” called the voice of M’Avity in the bow. The mate’s lips opened in a toothless smile.
“Hand-linin’ codfish outa Judique when you was a pup,” he said.
When they came up with the wreck at last, she surged from the trough ahead like a shrouded corpse, menacing in her very helplessness. Abercrombie heaved mightily on the sweep, resolving on the instant to bring his boat somewhere near her stern.
The crew would have to jump in the sea. He could see them very plainly now. Four men and a boy, in dirty yellow oilskins and cloth caps, watching the boat’s progress with impersonal eyes, as if it did not concern them in the least. Their craft bulked larger at close range, a schooner of the knockabout type, without bowsprit, common in the fishing settlements.
There was irony in the lettering on her counter, exposed where a buffet of the sea had jarred away some of the encrusting ice. Her name was veiled in the frigid winding sheet, as if in this fallen state she prayed to be anonymous, but the home port lay there for all to read—“Fortune, Nfld.”—flashing gilt letters in the pale sun of the December afternoon.
The mate brought his boat within safe distance of that golden jest and said quietly, “All right, boys. Lay on your oars.” The collier’s men slid the icy looms inboard carefully, silently, as if in the presence of death, and wrenched their mittens clear with little tearing sounds.
They stared up curiously at the dumb group on the wreck. The schooner rose and fell sluggishly with the glossy breasts of the swell. Water gurgled under her stern in all the pleasant innocence of a summer tide lapping at the piling of a wharf, and a ragged fringe of icicles along her counter thrust their fangs into the sea at every
indolent plunge. “Hullo!” called Abercrombie.
The schooner men answered in chorus, “Hullo!” One of them stepped to the side, threw a backward glance toward the Malagash. and stared again at the boat.
“Come to take ye off!” the mate said unnecessarily.
The men nodded. Their spokesman said slowly, “Where ye bound, b’ys?” “Wabana!” shouted Abercrombie.
He gave a hearty pull on the sweep. The schooner’s hull seemed to draw the boat like a magnet, and he did not like it. "I’ll run past your stern, skipper. Jump in, one at a time.”
The men at the cabin hatch cried something incoherent and turned to each other with wondering faces. Abercrombie swore, a deep-sea word that would have startled the people of his kirk. One of his boatmen turned and said, “Can’t swim. Hardly any o’ them Noo-fun-landers. They don’t like the idee o’ jumpin’ blind for the boat.” The mate grunted impatiently. "Well, I’m not bringin’ this lobster trap alongside. Not in this swell. They gotta jump an’ take their chances. We can fish ’em out.”
THE air was like a drawn sword. The undershirts of the rowers, sodden with sweat, turned clammy at their backs and gave them a miserable sensation of nakedness. They sat patiently in the aching cold, watching with baffled eyes a conference on the wreck. The swell marched ujxm them steeply in long ordered ranks from the rim of a steel-blue sky, paused to exact a curtsy from the boat and a drunken roll from the schooner, and then swept on with the froufrou of silk toward the southern horizon. Presently the silk changed in tint from bottle green to a flinty grey, and a backward glance showed Abercrombie another squall climbing up the steep arch of the sky. A man said uneasily, “More snow, boys.”
The mate cupped hands and shouted his impatience. “Hi! Get a move on, there! lie dark, first thing we know!” The conference dissolved abruptly, and the spokesman came to the side again.
“A ’right ! A’right, b’ys. Under d’ starn!” Abercrombie steered carefully. A grey ridge passed under them, and the boat swept like a toboggan down a glossy slope toward the schooner's counter.
“Jump!” roared the mate. A bundle of oilskins hurtled into their midst and rolled upon the bottom boards. It was the boy.
“Hurt?” Abercrombie called. The boat was lifting again beyond the derelict, and he brought her about with cautious strokes of the sweep.
“Naw,” murmured the boy. He lay in a quiet heap, smiling a little.
“Crawl under the thwart,” Abercrombie said. “Here comes the next man.” Five times he crossed the schooner’s stern, and then he had them in the grubby lifeboat, with the gilt mockery of "Fortune, Nfld.” — abandoned shibboleth—winking tipsily in farewell. He called, “Any more?” The boy’s eyes were closed. The men lay huddled on the bottom boards, staring up at the swaying backs of the oarsmen and wagging their heads slowly.
One was old, his face, a leathery bagful of bones under the raggeel doth cap. The others were of a size, three small men with blue eyes and darkly stubbled jaws. They might have been brothers. Their faces were creased alike, and of a common grey tinge, and their bloodshot eyes were rimmed with a curious pink like the flesh of spring salmon. Their scanty beards glistened with salt. They made no effort to arise and see the last of their bitter prison, but lay contentedly where they dropped in the boat.
The squall came down with a howl, flicking hard snow into the bright skin of the sea, filling the world with a great hiss like the rush of steam. Abercrombie had a glimpse of the Malagash steering downwind, and then she was lost in snow. He glanced back toward the derelict, barely visible through the white curtain, and changed his course. Old Merkel was
shifting to leeward to give the boat a straight run downwind.
How long would the squall last? It shut off the meagre sun and left them in a snowy dusk, filled with a dread of imminent nightfall. The men pulled fiercely, taking the full blast of snow in their faces. The wind tore spray from the long crests of the swell and flung it over the boat, decking the chilled rowers with spangles of ice. A faint vibration, somewhere in the snowy world, expanded into the familiar blast of the collier’s whistle. The men stared up at Abercrombie uncertainly. He shook his head. It was a sound without direction, and worthless.
After a time he cried, “Easy, boys. Take it easy for a bit.” He was filled with a sudden dread of being run down. They drifted. To their narrow visibility the swell appeared to leap from a white void, and on each foaming crest, in the bitter fusillade of snow, the boat had an illusion of terrific speed, rushing on to some uncomfortable doom in the dim twilight just beyond; but as she sank into the brief shelter of the grey ravines the men had a curious sensation of sliding backward.
The collier’s whistle throbbed hoarsely every few seconds, loudly and again faintly, a wandering and comfortless sound, like the petulant roar of a blind beast. The boat’s crew cursed the snow with bitter oaths. The Newfoundland men said nothing. It petered out in a thin volley at last, and they watched it sweeping away across the sea. The wind vanished abruptly, as it had leaped, and the sun, sinking pallidly behind a dark rampart to the southwest, livened the grey desert with fitful glints of green. The dark bulk of the Malagash was visible at once, away to starboard. They had nearly missed her.
AS THEY approached the swinging boatfalls under her icy lee, the mate looked up and saw Old Merkel standing between the davits with Biddle, Rutherford, and some of the hands. He permitted himself a slack-lipped grin of triumph. There should have been a gleam of approval in the Old Man’s eyes, if there were any justice in the world. But there was no justice. The master’s voice came roaring down to them. “We’ll pick up the boat, mister. Watch out how ye come alongside!”
The boat’s crew had lost their initial scare on the way to the wreck, and familiarity with the regular heave of the swell had bred, if not contempt, a spirit of indifference. Alongside the ship again, staring up at the lurching cliff of her side, their unease returned with sudden force. The Newfoundland men, too, accustomed to their handy dories and the low freeboard of fishing schooners, scrambled now to a crouch, regarding with their patient eyes the chances of disaster. The rowers got their oars up for a joust with the swinging hull, and Abercrombie cried, “Stand by, forrard! Wait till she lifts. Don’t try to hook on till I give the word !”
He gauged his distance nicely as a sea humped them skyward, seized the afterfall with a scream of “Hook!” and the boat dangled in mid-air. It came up the collier’s side jerkily, swinging widely as she rolled, and fell against the plating with alarming thumps. The men hung grimly to the life lines and made little effort to fend off. The boat strakes cracked visibly and audibly at each collision. Old Merkel would have to indent for a new boat after all. When Abercrombie stepped upon the deck he gave a long sigh and met the Old Man’s gaze firmly. The boat’s crew turned with the happy patronage of saviors to the men they had plucked from the sea. and released their long-tightened voices with a rush of words.
Young Rutherford ignored them. He had seen the hard fear in all their eyes as they looked up from the boat. It was romance he wanted, the Romance of the Sea, in which there was no place for an emotion so abject. He searched for it eagerly in the lined faces of the Newfound-
landers as they stumbled from the boat, and found nothing but the sublime patience of their eyes.
“Thirty moil from ’ome, we was. when d’sticks went out of ’er,” they said with faint smiles, and looked in his face anxiously, as if it were important that he should see the joke. They walked with short steps, stiffly, scuffing their rubber boots along the plates as if it irked them to bend their knees.
The eager Maltese steward appeared from below, shivering in his soiled white jacket, and urged them down to the engineers’ mess with entreating tugs at their brittle sleeves and a stream of broken English. They followed him, docile as dogs, with the curious exploring gait of men who have spent too many hours on a slippery deck; and as they entered the fug of the tiny messroom, its heat and stink of radiators, they went down to the greasy carpet together in a sprawled heap. There they lay open-eyed, one of them murmuring in soft apology,
“ ’Tis d’ heat, b’ys, d’ blessed heat.”
They seemed content in their helplessness, with a repose of death on their stubbled faces and the calm enduring gleam of life in their eyes, but they were dragged upon the dingy red plush couch behind the engineers’ little table and propped into sitting postures, like tired children. Engine^s pushed spoons in their unresisting hands and urged them to eat; and the Maltese, very foreign to these men of the sea with his sleek mustache and the feminine glow in his dark eyes, patted their thawing carapaces, murmuring, “Poor boys. Poor boys.”
Old Merkel, busy in the chart room with parallel ruler and dividers, sent Biddle to fetch the wireless operator from his curiosity below.
When Rutherford appeared in the doorway, Old Merkel said, “Y’ better send a radio to the Marine an’ Fisheries people. I’ll have the position in a minute. That skipper’s cornin’ up here when he’s dong eatin’, an’ we’ll get her name an’ owners. Stick around.” He turned back to his chart, grumbling into his coat collar, and jotted figures on the margin of the sheet with a stub of pencil. “Latitood 46-24. Humph. Longitood 55-39. Humph. Close enough.”
THE master of the schooner came to them with Indian silence, his small feet lost in Somers’ carpet slippers. He had shed his ragged oilers and the mackinaw beneath, and now looked thinner than ever in a blue jersey and black frieze trousers.
She was the Gertrude, he told them simply, and she belonged partly to himself and partly to Bill Hickey, “over to Far-chun Bay.” They had been to Nova Scotia for a load of coal “an’ a few store things, like” and put in at the French island of Saint Pierre on the way home, to get a small keg of rum. “. . . We got Pro’bition, over ’ome, b’ys.”
Off Saint Pierre, a scant thirty miles from Fortune and home, about daylight on the 17th, the gallant Gertrude was smitten by a terrific squall. “Cotched it proper, she did, b’ys. D’ jumbo blowed outa d’ bolt ropes, but d’ rest o’ d’ canvas ’eld, an’ took d’ sticks out of ’er.” (Rutherford wondered what a jumbo might be, and thought of elephants.) “D’ foremast broke off a fut or two ’bove d’ deck an’ went clean; but d’ mainmast ’ove up d’ deck a bit. We cut d’ riggin’ clear to keep d’ spars from poundin’ ’er guts out. Sea come up very fast, b’ys, an’ swep’ ’er clean—dory an’ all—an’ smashed d’ rudder post.”
They manned their quaint wooden pumps as soon as the sea would permit— “We was feared d’ coal mighta got in d’ pump clappers, but nothin’ ’appened”— and slaved at the heartbreaking things without food or rest until evening of the 18th, drifting steadily to the southeast. They caulked the torn deck after a fashion with blankets and an old jib, but the
water gained steadily. Then, as darkness fell on the 18th, the wind died.
“It come crackin’ cold. b’ys. She begun to make ice pritty fast. Arter d’ deck iced up a bit, she stopped makin’ water. We quit d‘ pumps den. Our mittens was wore clean out. an’ so was we. D’ was a few biscuit in d’ cabin aft, but ’twere dry eatin’ an’ our tongues ad got t’ick, like. We rolled ourselves in d’ quilts an’ waited for mornin’.”
At daylight the air was calm and sharp with frost. The schooner was caked in ice, wallowing lifelessly in the steep oily swells. They lashed chunks of firewood to three or four old broomsticks, relics of the summer’s fishing, and hammered off the worst of the ice, being careful to preserve the heavy mass congealed about the torn deck. Then they took to their pumps again and worked until the stark cold of night drove them into the cabin once more.
“But she swum better, b’ys. We knowed, den. she ’adn’t spewed ’er oakum, an’ so long as d’ cold ’eld, she’d swim as good as new. Ain’t a sea in d’ world could take d’ ice off ’er deck.” This morning they had worked the pumps again, the boy taking his turn always with the rest. The Gertrude was gaining buoyancy at every stroke. In the afternoon they retired to the cheerless cabin “to take it easy a bit,” and then the collier came.
He recited all this in the low-voiced out-port jargon, addressing them with his democratic “b’ys” and pausing frequently as if in search for words.
It sounded very commonplace. He mentioned the vagary of the sea with a quiet tolerance, as if it had been the whim of a faithful beast whose past service outweighed the present kick in the ribs.
ABERCROMBIE said curiously, “What was the hang-up, skipper, over there under your stern—when we sung out Wabana'? ”
The little master of the Gertrude wrinkled his brows and then spread his cracked lips in a smile of apology.
“Don’t ’ee take it amiss, b’ys. She was all we ’ad in d’ world, Bill Tckey an’ me. I didn’ know ’ow to leave ’er.” He hesitated, licking his chapped mouth. “D’ was somet’ing else, b’ys. We bin away from Far-chun sence d’ capelin come, fishin’ down d’ Labrador all summer an’ freightin’ a bit sence. Tis a long time, b’ys. I h’aint zackly a seagoin’ schoolmaster— beggin’ yer pardon, b’ys—but ’smornin’ I figgered we was somewheres in d’ track o’ d’ Port-aux-Basques mail boat. She’s due dis way tomorry. Ef we cotched ’er, we’d be 'ome in t'ree days at d’ houtside. When ye come along in d' boat, me an’ d’ boy was for stickin’ to ole Gertrude; but Alfrud ’n Michael ’n Ole Joshuey reckoned we’d oughter leave whiles d’ leavin’ was good.”
Old Merkel nodded his Cossack hat slowly. The master of the Gertrude offered his faint smile.
“Y’see, b'ys,” he said gently, “we wanted ’ome fer Chris’mus. Yiss. ’Ome fer Chris’mus. An’ we t’ought ’ee said ‘Havana.’ ”
He fumbled under his jersey and brought forth—of all things on the wide face of the sea—a doll, a small pink-faced thing from the fifteen-cent store in Sydney, and sat it carefully on Old Merkel’s chart, as if it explained everything.
Young Rutherford gazed upon him with shining eyes. The wireless message was crumpled, forgotten, in his fingers.
It was not Romance, that bright Grail of his dreams, for the rescue had been uneventful and the climax too absurd; but he knew that, whatever else the sea might hold for him, he would never forget those raw lips and their tale of the road to Fortune. Old Merkel turned amazed blue eyes upon the mate, asking mutely if this man were mad, with his childlike faith in his own by-guess-and-by-God navigation and his notion of “stickin’ to olt Gertrude.”
“Christmas!” he exploded. He had never heard anything so indecent in his life.