BRASS TACKS AND PAINT
“JIM, you wouldn’t call me a calamityhowler, would you?”
The man looked across at his wife without that quick smile of his. The question—or perhaps it was a note in her voice—sent a ripple across the perfect serenity which distinguished him.
“A calamity-howler? Why, honey, you’re the last person on earth I’d call that. I don’t believe you’d admit anything was a disaster if it stared you in the face. We’ve been married more than a year now, and I’ve never once heard you give even the tiniest squeak about anything—” “That’s just it, Jim,” said Sonia Brett. “There hasn’t been anything to make anyone give even the tiniest little squeak. And I can’t help feeling sometimes that our happiness is too good to last. This isn’t a hunch: it isn’t pessimism. I simply don’t believe people go through the world with the joy that is ours, lasting all the time. There’s a price to pay, Jim, for everything we get on this earth. And what have we paid? Sometimes it makes me almost—afraid.”
“Why, dearest, you pay every minute you’re alive.” He was even further from smiling now. “Happiness is a dividend for your sweetness. I often think that nothing short of paradise is fit to hold you. You have a right to all that sort of thing. There isn’t one woman in a billion could hold a candle to you.”
“Dear man,” Sonia said, stroking his hair, “sometimes I really think you believe that; though it isn’t true, of course. I think I love you as much as a woman could love a man, and it is true that I am always thinking for your happiness. I want you to go on getting everything life has to offer, but we mustn’t live in a fool’s paradise, dear. I just don’t believe this could go on indefinitely. Life is always made up of both light and shade.”
“Sonia, I’ll tell you something,” came from Jim. “I don’t know which I love best—-your eyes, your hair, or the voice that is a part of you.”
“But if I lost my eyes and my hair and my voice—”
“I should love you just the same. I couldn’t help it. That isn’t what I was going to tell you, though. Now, don’t laugh, even if it sounds silly. Do you remember a black cat wanted to get into the cab with us the day we were married?”
“No,” Jim went on. “You were busy saying goodbye to everyone. Well, I didn’t speak about it then, because I didn’t want you to make fun of it. But that cat surely looked like a million dollars to me.”
Sonia shook her head.
“You superstitious old dear. They’re lucky, of course.” “Wait a minute. I’m not talking about just an ordinary black cat. For me, it’s got to be a black cat with a white face. There, I knew you’d laugh, but I can’t help that. The thing’s real, Sonia. ' It
hasn’t happened often: perhaps four or five times in my life. It’s a fact, though, that every time a tremendous stroke of good luck is coming my way there’s a white-faced black cat mixed up in it. There wasn’t any question left as to whether we were going to find everything wonderful after I saw that little fellow the day we were married.”
Sonia smiled. She wasn’t of the superstitious order.
“I’m glad if it pleased you, my Jim,” she said as though to a child. “But when you come right down to brass tacks, the question of whether we’re to have a good time or not depends on something much more tangible than black cats with white faces.”
“You mean?” HP was always open to reason, with her. And perhaps—who can tell?—she was right now.
"It depends on us-you. and me."
TIM BRETT was third as*■* sistant deputy secretary, or something equally vague, to the president of a great Quebec shipping house. And even this was an achievement, because he had begun at the bottom. Though he
had no knowledge of that interesting fact, Mr. Macginnel, the president, had kept an august eye on Jim and marked him down as one of the men who some day might become a pdwer in the office.
“He’s young yet,” the president observed to his own right hand executive, “but, mark my words, watch him. When he gets properly into his stride he’ll kick the world before him. Give him time: all he needs is experience. Say, somebody’s got to go to Manilla pretty soon to fix those contracts. How about it? Jim Brett’s the very man. Can we spare him?”
“I guess so. He could go by the Apia Maid. We’ve got her scheduled to sail in three weeks.”
“Send him,” snapped Macginnel, dismissing, in two words, a subject which was destined to turn the world inside out for a woman and her man.
Jim sailed: went down the St. Lawrence on a rusty old steamer with important documents in his portmanteau and a lump in his throat while a woman on the wharf still stood with blanched face staring down the ship’s lane— staring and trying in her daze to get a grip on facts with which she must grapple. And all those facts resolved themselves into one big hurt. Jim had gone. H,er earthgod was with her no more. For an hour she stood, fighting, fighting for that calm poise which had been hers up to the last minute. Mechanically, even, she had smiled at him when the ropes were cast off, when the space between wharf and steamer widened to ten feet, twenty, fifty! And her smile had remained, frozen, for his sake, even though in those few moments some evil prescience had bitten like acid into her active consciousness. Jim had gone: but what of the return? “Within four months,” he had said. Yet there on the wharf, bewildered by the agony of it, Sonia felt—call it clairvoyance, modern witchery, or what you will—that though other vessels sailed that day and would run with the precision of railroad trains, nestling at long last in some friendly corner, the Apia Maid had gone out into the great unknown.
As in some form of hypnosis, she went back home: there mechanically slit open a letter, and the laugh that came from her was the laugh of one who, bearing life’s burden to the uttermost, is suddenly harassed with a new load. Aunt Mirabel, her only relative, was dead.
For ten days Sonia drifted dreamily through her empty routine, arid then came decision. In work, alone, she would find surcease. With Sonia action ever followed swiftly on the heels of decision, and in less than twenty-
four hours she was back at a desk deserted over a twelvemonth. A letter, buoyant and full of promise, came from Jim, mailed at PanamaAnd then a great silence.
A week—two—three—and still silence. Feverishly the woman watched the shipping reports.
men, unusually serious, sat in Mr. Macginnel's office. The first momentary doubt had been raised concerning the Apia Maid.
“Queer thing she wasn’t once signalled after leaving the canal,” commented the president. “She’ll turn up all right, though. There’s no safer skipper afloat than Cameron. But, say, get out the insurance papers. I’d like to see they’re all in order.”
Another twenty days, and Mr. Macginnel began to reconsider his view. The excellence of Cameron as a mastermariner notwithstanding, strange things happen at sea— things against which God intends no captain to contend. Twenty days more, and tentative arrangements were made for another vessel to take the Apia Maid’s place in the shipping schedule. A grim business, and sordid, this losing of a steamer at sea. Dollars and souls lost; and only dollars regained. You wait months while heart strings are pulled taut to breaking point: then you sign a receipt and, hey, you have another steamer resembling the first as one pea is like its fellow. But there were men in the steamer that didn’t come back, were there? Well, weren’t they insured? No? Short-sighted, very short-sighted. Men who ride the sea in ships take risks!
And women must weep! Or wait, dry-eyed, hoping when all save hope is gone. So Sonia Brett waited, not for that rusty man-made thing that carried her love away, but for her man.
Came the day when the Apia Maid was officially “missing”: came endless grey days, weeks, months when only the mill of business preserved sanity for Sonia, even on a dismal March morning while rain fell pitilessly and a bitter wind lashed Quebec; while elsewhere, under a blinding, baking sun, a coatless sailor on a becalmed schooner, sluicing down the deck, dipped a bucket overboard and began to heave it back on a line. He was humming a chantey famous for a hundred years among seamen.
“Blow, blow, blow the man down—”
he croaked like a crow. And then stopped. Stopped croaking and hauling. He was a thirsty brute, this shell-back, and the sight of something floating by the side of the schooner tickled memories fraught with both pleasure and pain. There was that time, for instance, in ’Frisco, when he ran up against Bill Steadman, an old shipmate. The two hadn’t
clapped eyes on one another for ten years or more. No wonder they got soused together. Next day Bill fought the mate of a hooker when the pair found themselves bound for China, Shanghai’d. Rare fight it was, too. But the mate got him.
This musing mariner lazily dipped his bucket under a bottle half a-wash.
“What a hell of a hope!” he soliloquised, even though the cork remained in place. “Miracles don’t happen.”
"Blow, blow, blow the man down-"
Almost he had lost inter est. Up came the bottle. His great paw closed over the neck and he shook the thing. Empty! Back swung his arms as he began to heave it away when some one spoke to him. For three minutes, still clutch ing the neck of the bottle, he argued with another deck-hand about good old days when sailors were sailors. And then, mechan ically, he pulled out the bottle's cork, peered quizai rally into the neck, andsaw'the folded paper within. Cracking the glass against the rail, he smoothed the paper out. The message was in pencil:
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Steamer Apia Maid struck sunken wreckage and sank. I swam ashore to one of the Caroline Islands. Tell Mrs. Brett, 17 Briant St., Quebec, to send help. Island uninhabited, has two big palm trees at the top.—James Brett.
The deck-hand read this through, then beckoned another sailor to his side.
“That looks genuwine, Sandy, don’t it? Some guy’s got it in the neck. Where’s the Caroline Islands? To the no’thard o’ the Solomons, ain’t they?”
Sandy spat overboard, labored his way through the message and spat overboard again, twice.
“Search me,” he said, digging into three days’ growth of beard with a blunt thumb. “Try it on the old man. The Solmons are hundreds o’ miles away.”
SO THAT for a space the anguish of Jim Brett, imprisoned within painted horizons, served to kill a little dull time in the forecastle of the schooner; and her master folded away the message in a wallet. He was about four days’ run from the Carolines, and there were countless hundreds of those far-flung islands, anyway. To search for one ship-wrecked wretch with such data to go on might take a year, even two. Besides, the man was probably dead by now—thirst, scurvy, God knows what. Ugh! Who wouldn’t sell his ship and go farming!
But, six weeks later, after he had been ashore at Sydney a couple of days, he remembered the pencilled message. Thereupon he mailed it to Mrs. Brett with a covering letter.
Enclosed was found floating in the Coral Sea. Hope same isn’t a hoax.—Yrs. ob. R. Wade (master).
You see, Captain Wade was a humane man. He didn’t want Mrs. Brett, if such a person existed, to imagine things that were not true. One never knew how a woman might upset herself!
In due season Sonia, with knees on the floor, wept, prayed and laughed simultaneously, clutching at a bit of paper bearing a pencilled message.
“Oh, God—Jim, Jim, I’m coming to you,” she sobbed. Then, staring upward with starry eyes, “I knew it couldn’t always go on as it was before—before he went. And maybe this is the price we had to pay.”
Going over to the window and looking out at the stars that night, she sought to crystallize her program. Aunt Mirabel’s money was the power to use. How to spread a drag-net over those islands! Already she had learned something of the task’s magnitude. God grant only that Jim lived long enough: she would do the rest if it occupied the remainder of her life. Within twenty-four hours she could start. San Francisco first: then a steamer to Sydney.
Eventually a little two-masted schooner crept between the heads of Sydney Harbor and turned north, passed over the Coral Sea, threaded its way beyond the Solomons, and kept on, ever to the no’-, thard, with three men, and also a woman who seemed never to sleep. By day she stared always out'over the limitless waste, sometimes pacing the restricted deck feverishly, sometimes leaning over the rail, hunger in her eyes. By night she lay in her bunk a few hours, dozing fitfully but ever conscious of the pencilled message that lay next her breast.
Conley, the gnarled, weather-beaten skipper, for most part a man of few words, answered her endless questions patiently. In fifty years he had seen drama in countless shapes at sea, some with women involved. Yet here was a new chapter to him. He had real pity for this woman. He knew the Carolines, if anyone may be said to know that stretch of drear islands scattered like dust over an area as great as from Nova Scotia to Cuba. He’d heard before of men being stranded there—stranded until their bones lay white on the powdered coral beach maybe twenty years later, maybe twenty days. You can’t drink powdered coral.
Yes, Conley had pity for Sonia Brett: she needed it.
WHEN they reached the outer fringe of the islands and Conley saw the woman’s reaction, he pitied her the more. It was as though a terrible fire was consuming her. If sails sagged in a flailing breeze and the little Waunegan lay like a daubed thing on an undulating giant canvas, the woman chafed and fretted -until Conley shook his head solemnly. Yes, he pitied her. There are ten thousand bits of land big enough to call islands in the Carolines, and at the outside limit Mrs. Brett had the price of an eighteenmonths’ lease of the schooner.
She had pinned a large chart on the side of her state room. Perhaps only one out of every ten islands was shown, but that was helpful. As the schooner came to each island and they drew blank, Sonia marked it with a cross. When an island wasn’t given on the chart she put it in and then crossed it. A slow, heart-breaking business, especially when she began to Tealize that it would take years to complete the chart. But the fire within her burned ceaselessly. At least they were searching that section of the islands nearest to the steam route. There was always hope: there always is hope in the Sonia Bretts of this world.
But north, south, east, west, the tantalizing loom of land lay on the horizons, month after month. Maddening land when they got to it—a scorched stark patch fifty feet across, its bigger brother, equally scorched and barren; a florid island thick with tangled growth and everywhere birds—millions of them in a world devoid of human life. And above all a loneliness, a remoteness which appalled. Only the moan of the sea and the melancholy cry of gulls.
LIKE some wild thing, a man in tatters stood on a sun-baked beach, long hair blowing in the breeze. From there he could survey almost the whole of his little kingdom—his world. The ground rose slightly in the centre of the island. Until yesterday two gaunt palm trees had stood there, silent sentinels. But a hurricane smashed them down. To the man they looked uncanny, lying on the ground, dying. Except the birds with their dismal cry, they had been his only living companions worth considering.
His nerve was going: he had begun to fathom the meaning of eternity. Fifty feet away, covered by a pall of ever-shifting powdered coral, lay the broken half of a steamer in its grave. It had drifted up there eighteen months ago when that eternity thing began. Then he had cried in his thankfulness, because the half of a broken steamer contains much that is preferable to every dollar in Canada, in the eyes of a ship-wrecked man. But afterward when solitude came no nearer an end and his nerve began to shake, the hummock, so like a monstrous tomb, seemed to mock him—it held the corpse of the creatures that had carried him there.
His eyes were sunken like living coals, about them fear ever deepening. Fear of the unknown: the vague horrors which, in his tortured brain, must grow with each succeeding day. It was worse, now, a hundred-fold, than in the weeks when that first moon waxed blatant and waned. Jim Brett then still believed in the Almighty and His infinite mercy. Yet, his nerve was going. When a puff of wind whisked up a little powdered coral and stung his cheek he spun around, throwing up an arm to ward off some figment of disordered imagination. Among other things, a skilled diagnostician would have urged a change of diet. For three months there had been nothing but fish, eggs, and the stupid birds that stood still, confidingly, as though willing, on that forsaken bit of earth, to be killed.
The burning eyes turned to the rind of the sea, swept slowly along, lids narrowing as he noticed something that might have been a bird in the far distance. He had seen things like that before—a thousand of them. But, as ever on such occasions he stood motionless, gaze fixed on that faint blur which eyes less eager might never have detected. Then he lost sight of it: one of those infernal birds, of course. A year or more ago they sometimes used to trick him for a moment. Now he knew what to expect.
Another blur. No, that must be the same one. A wisp of cloud, perhaps.
A scorpion-like object scuttled between bis feet, O.nee a similar creature had
bitten him and because of its poison he limped for three months afterward. Now the thing paused within an inch of his heel unnoticed, then scuttled on. You must live in hell and see the faint shadow of a possible reprieve coming, to learn what concentration may be.
BUT the blur wasn’t a cloud. Nor was it a bird. After a while it grew less nebulous. A sound, part groan and part sob, broke from the man, and he sped swiftly to the centre of the island, where a pile of driftwood lay scattered by the hurricane. Then he turned screwed-up eyes to the horizon, and whimpered. Still whimpering, he rushed into a rude shack, clawed his most precious possession—a box of matches—from a sea-man’s chest, and ran back to the scattered driftwood.
With shaking hands he began to gather bits of the kindling together. But it was wet, sodden. Dear God! And yonder, perhaps a score miles off, was a sail! Some craft manned by human beings, possibly by blacks, possibly even by white men. His whimper rose to a deep note of anguish.
Impotently he held a lighted match against the wet sticks. Then stared at that faint but steady blur where sea met sky. Rushing back to the shack he smashed into fragments the crude furniture. Two books, rescued from the wreck, caught his eye, and a pencilled diary in which he had at one time written regularly. These he carried out, tearing leaves apart as he ran. Presently there was a little flame, a thin trickle of smoke. With a spar he beat upon the sailor’s chest, breaking it into fuel. But the flames licked up only the smashed furniture and the broken chest. In the hour of his need the driftwood, gathered piece by piece in eighteen months, was useless. The fire flickered, spluttered and died; and the man whose resources were all gone, stood on the brink of madness, facing the gate of paradise. He could see the vessel, still a mere speck, running away into the west, as near now to his island as the course she was on would ever take her.
In frenzy he scraped together a handful of damp kindling and lighted the whole box of matches under it; when the pitiful flare sank he tore off his shirt and, waving it frantically, ran to the beach until waist deep in the sea he was shouting to a ship twelve miles away. Suddenly, aghast, he became silent, stunned with the horror of it. Over the water there came an answer —the melancholy cry of a gull.
SONIA stood by the poop rail, looking through binoculars at one of three islands that had loomed in the distance simultaneously. By her side old Captain Conley peered pessimistically over the waste. Behind him a sailor, slapping paint on the deck house, was straining his ears to catch the conversation.
“I’m afraid we’re getting too much to the north, Captain,” Sonia said, lowering the glasses. “Better keep working west, nearest the shipping lane. I’ve only three months left, and that time is—is desperately precious.”
The sailor slapping paint on the deckhouse leaned forward. The schooner swayed in the swell.
“Well, you’re the docte’-, Mrs. Brett,” replied the skipper.
“It’s hard to know where to draw the line,” said the woman. “For instance there’s an island over there.” She indicated one where a man, wholly invisible at that distance, was waist-deep in water, frantically waving his poor little tattered signal and uttering cries that now were only half human. “You never can tell. That might just happen to be the one.” She lowered the glasses but put 1hem up again restlessly. “I don’t know why,” Sonia went on, “but somehow I wish we’d called there.”
The schooner lurched and there came a crash. Conley turned sharply to the sailor near.
“Say,” he barked, “did you want me to hold your paint pot for you? Get a swab quick and clean this mess up.”
The ship’s cat, a large black creature, was squatting near, looking extremely foolish. Some of the white paint had splashed its face and the animal was trying to wash it off. Sonia Brett jumped up quickly and lifted the cat on to her knee.
“You’ll get that darn stuff all over you, Mrs. Brett,” Conley protested.
“Never mind,” came from Sonia in a queer voice. “Please turn the schooner. I’m going to call at that island after all.”