His love was nurtured on a phantom voice and hers on the strength that is the strength of the sea
FREDERICK B. WATT
IT WASN’T a bad sort of a port and the natural instinct of a sailor was to pick a companion and go ashore the night before he sailed. Hazlett, the second engineer, was a fast worker and had already lined up a bit of fluff for the evening. Hatch, the third mate, wasn’t bad as a rule, but last night in always meant a messy drunk with him and I was in no mood to pack him back aboard on my shoulders. Upton, the first mate, was, of course, head and shoulders above either of them—but, dash it all, it was Friday night.
In desperation I sought him on the upper deck. He was there, right enough, pacing slowly before the wireless cabin.
“Come on and get your last feel of the beach,” I urged, falling into step at his side. “It’s last night in and Elsie Frigate won’t pass out just because you don’t listen to her for one evening. There are plenty of Friday nights coming up when there’ll be no counterattraction. She’s got a million or so of an audience as it is.”
“Don’t be an ass,” ordered Charlie Upton. “D’you think if there was anything worth while doing ashore I’d be staying on the ship to listen to a tin-pot radio?” Reife, the wireless man, jabbed his head through the port and snapped, “Belay the libel against my set. I’ve half a mind to lock you out. Elsie’s coming up next number.”
Upton was in the door before the operator had time to carry out his threat and slumped in one of the two chairs the cabin boasted. Disgustedly I followed in time to hear a nasal gentleman in the loud speaker announce that Elsie Frigate would sing “Sea Fever.” “Sea fever’s a cinch compared to what you’ve got,” I snarled at the first mate.
Upton refused to answer, but commandingly waved his hand for silence as the piano struck the opening chords of the haunting air. Then came the voice of Elsie Frigate. Soft contralto she had; nice to listen to, even to a fellow more acquainted with forecastle ballads than toneÿ classics.
“I must down to the seas again,
To the lonely sea and the sky;
And all I ask is a tall ship And a star to steer her by.”
“Not a bad song,” I broke in, “but a devil of a choice for a woman.”
“Will you kindly shut up,” roared Upton, grasping me with two great paws and depositing me in the corner. It was annoying the way the blonde young
giant could handle an average man as though he were a tailor’s hollow dummy.
The singer continued, ignoring the little rumpus. Begrudgingly I listened in silence for a moment, then was carried away by the beauty of the selection. True, it was a man’s song, but Elsie Frigate made it more than a half-weird tune with pretty words scattered through it. She sang it as though she realized that men who were in a position to be critical listened in. You could hear the wail of the tireless birds in the steamer’s wake when she told of “the sea gulls crying.” Even Reife, who professed contempt for radio programmes, pricked up his ears.
No one spoke when the voice died away, and we were startled back into a realization of our surroundings when he of the nasal voice announced: “Miss Frigate must leave at present for a concert engagement, but at midnight she will be heard again in several request numbers. Hello Mr. Upton, hello Mr. Upton. Miss Frigate will oblige you with your request number in her midnight programme. We will now hear the snappy gent, Aloysius B.—”
Reife switched off the juice abruptly and regarded the first mate accusingly.
“How?” he demanded.
Upton shifted a bit uneasily.
“Well, what of it?” he asked. “Didn’t anyone ever send in a bit of fan mail before?”
“Maybe,” admitted Reife, “but why should you get special attention from a station of that size? You must have told her of how you come mooning in here every Friday night just to hear her warble a note or two.”
“Aw, pipe down,” snorted Upton, angrily taking his six-feet-three of well proportioned body out of the chair and directing it to the door. “I’ve seen enough of you for one day. Good night!”
“How about the midnight concert?” jeered Reife.
“That’s another day,” grinned Charlie. Anger was a gusty thing with him.
“Cripes!” I jerked when we were again on the darkened deck. “Whatever got into you to shoot her a letter? I didn’t think it was that bad.”
“Neither it is, nettlehead,” he shot back. “I did it just because I hadn’t anything else to do—and because I liked her—her voice I mean. Remember the last Friday night in Prince Rupert—of course you wouldn’t; it was nothing to you. In any case it was raining— nothing unusual—but it was one of those dismal, chilly nights when your cabin’s about as friendly as a cemetery vault; when an ordinary human being who’s pottering
aimlessly about the world without a soul to care whether he keeps his propeller turning or not, gets the blues. And I got ’em. Bad. Properly low—ready to jump in the drink and end the pointlessness of it all.
“I suddenly remembered it was Friday night, so in I tumbled to the wireless cabin and let Elsie clear the heebie-jeebies out of me. After the programme was over and I’d got a good grip on myself again, it suddenly struck me that it was the easiest thing in the world to kid myself along the road of comparative happiness. Here I was, drawing consolation, developing a crush, on a voice that could never affect me more seriously than a pretty dream. It was a devil of a lot nicer than having a girl who, the same as a ship, would uncover a lot of queer kinks when you got to looking into her seriously. I was so pleased with myself that I sat straight down and wrote a letter to Elsie in care of the station. Just a couple of lines saying I enjoyed her concerts and would like her to sing one of my favorites some time.”
“You could hardly expect an answer to a note like that,” I said, disappointed now that there was no greater element of romance to the business.
“I don't know whether I should have expected one— I didn’t in fact,” replied Upton evenly. “But I got one.”
“Eh?” I gasped.
“Come into the vestry,” invited the mate, leading the way to his cabin.
It was a good firm hand, womanish enough, but with a free swing to it that was friendly, frank. It read: “Dear Mr. Upton—Naturally I don’t attempt to answer my fan mail, but it was out of the ordinary to hear from a ship at sea. As you might guess from a number of my selections the ocean has a large place in my heart—probably due to the fact that I am a seaman’s daughter—and a sailor's appreciation is something to be treasured. I am glad my songs have pleased you and hope that they may continue to. Yours, Elsie Frigate.”
Upton handled the note as if it was fragile; of great value.
“Decent of her, eh?” he smiled.
“Quite,” I granted. “I suppose you’ll be writing again. Remember,” I warned, “these correspondence affairs are more deadly than any. Distance and mystery make the heart grow fonder and all that sort of tripe. And remember, too, that any woman who marries a sailor makes a great sacrifice, much less a girl who’s got a career of her own.”
“Good Lord,” Upton burst out: “you’d think I had a cargo of crazy hopes—that I was in love with the girl!”
“I think you are,” I said bluntly.
“Come ashore,” he roared, “and I'll show you how much I care.”
I might better have gone with Hatch in the first place, for the third mate, being an average-sized man, was a mere handful compared to Upton when it came to packing him aboard. Had it not been for a friendly stevedore I doubt if I should have made it. Bootleg whiskey is poor stuff to prove anything on unless it be a willingness to dare death.
FOR two weeks Upton never entered the wireless cabin or put pen to paper. True, on Friday nights he might have been found leaning outside of Relfe’s
sanctum with his ear to the porthole, but he never knew that I spotted him, which was almost as good as his never having been there at all. First day in ’Frisco, however, he barged into my cabin like an enraged grizzly and lifted me bodily from my bunk as though to rend me apart.
“Damn you,” he breathed, “I thought you were a friend. Is this what you call being funny?”
He thrust a letter into my hand—Elsie Frigate’s writing. I knew it before I saw the breezy, firm signature.
“Dear Mr. Upton—Many, many thanks for the snapshot. Somehow I had pictured you clearly from your brief note and the photo was a complete confirmation of my powers of second sight. But why make so terse a business of it? Not even an address at which I might render you thanks. Had I not kept your original letter with the name of your ship on it, then looked up her location in the shipping news, I should have been completely baffled.
“In any case you should have written me besides letting your picture speak for itself. On the face of things you suffer from conceit, yet, when I look at you out of the corner of my eye—one moment while I take another peek—you seem to be a proper sailor, which automatically dismisses the charge.
“Am I still worthy of your patronage on Friday evenings? Sincerely,
“What in the devil is the idea of pulling this on me?" fumed the first mate.
“Me? Oh, I see—I’m the chap who sent her the photo,” I said. “No Charlie, not me. You’re yapping up the wrong sapling.”
“You’ve the only camera aboard,” he shot.
That was quite true, but there was no law against it being borrowed and I was on the point of telling the rate seaman that I had loaned it to Reife when I suddenly took pity on the wireless operator.
“Well, it’s one sweet mess, whoever did it,” sighed CJpton, his anger flickering out with its customary abruptness. “Now I’ll have to write a letter trying to convince her that I’m not the big-headed sheik I appear to be. Good heavens, even a schoolboy with puppy love would be above sending a photo without a line of reading matter, as though the glorious image required no explanation! I’ve never even posed for a picture, much less sent one to anybody, in my life. I suppose I might as well write her here and now.”
“Why bother?” I asked innocently. “She’s nothing to you and it shouldn’t make any difference what her opinion of you amounts to.”
‘That may be true,” answered Upton stubbornly; "but I owe it to myself to clear up this business.”
Reife was the type of humorist who usually ends up by scaring someone into an asylum or an early grave, but even when I forced him to admit that he had, as a lark, sent the photo to Miss Frigate, I couldn’t find it in my heart to rake him over the coals.
'“THERE followed a year in which there was practically no new development. The mate religiously attended every available Friday evening programme and the voice of Elsie Frigate followed us halfway round the world like a phantom member of the crew. Her letters were picked up in many foreign ports by a quietly elated man of the sea. There was nothing sentimental about them—Upton showed me them openly, eagerly almost—but they were chummy, satisfying notes.
Once I received a month-old paper that brought news of the singer. She was going ahead apparently. Critics were wondering why she bothered to keep up her radio work, for which she received next to nothing. It gave me considerable worry, that. I tossed the paper over the side hurriedly.
The mate, slugging in his cabin when the ordinary man would have been ashore enjoying himself, passed for his captain’s ticket, but made no more use of it than to include it as a commonplace item in one of his letters to Elsie. Without seeking a ship he was offered one, however. He refused to consider it until he had looked into the vessel; then he turned it down flat, stating his preference for his present berth.
“What the deuce is the matter?” I demanded. “Is she a poor packet?”
“Nice ship,” he admitted, “but a poor run. I’d be ‘down under’ for eight months of the year.”
“Since when have sailors been pickers and choosers of their beats?” I asked in surprise. “I knew the time when you complained that our run was about as interesting as a policeman’s patrol in a small town. After all, you’ll be able to tune in every Friday night—” “No, I won’t,” he cut in, "Her wireless isn’t up to it at that distance.”
“Oh ho, so that’s it!” I whistled.
Upton colored—his complexion was one that did it attractively.
“No, that’s not it—” he began. Then he changed his mind. “Well, I guess it is after all. I don’t mind admitting it to you because you’ve probably known all along how deep it went and I suppose you sympathize to some extent. I’d be like a ship minus a rudder without those Friday nights.”
“You can’t go on like this indefinitely, though,” I declared. “She’s not going to sing over the radio forever. Why not take a couple of weeks off when we go in, hike over to see her and pop the question. You’re not so hard to look at, and even if she does give you the go-by it’ll settle the thing once and for all,andyou’ll be able to take the ship with no regrets. If a refusal affects you like it does most men, you’ll be only too glad to get to the other side of the globe.”
“No,” said Charlie definitely. “I’m afraid. I’m afraid she might say ‘yes’—though >t’s a hundred to one chance. I’ll not be the one to put any beautiful bird
in a rusty, cast-iron cage. I’d sooner go blindly on, knowing all the time that my little heaven’s certain to collapse without warning at any minute.”
“Maybe,” I said hopefully, “one look at her would cure you.”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “I know exactly what she looks like. She’s rather taller than the usual run and there’s something to her—she’s not a skimpy lath like the girls Hazlett thinks are such knockouts. Same with her face. It’s got lines, like a yacht, not a square blob like an egg-and-butter boat. And she’s dark— long black hair, black and shiny like hard coal, with a bit of a natural curl in it.”
“You’ve seen her picture,” I hazarded.
Upton shook his head, filled his pipe and gave every indication of being desirous of solitude. He got it.
Tij'ATE was to take a hand in shaking Charlie loose from his berth, though. Beating for home with a snorting gale on our stern we had the choice of heading away from a lee shore or lying up for the night in an unfamiliar bay. The skipper chose the latter. There was only one bad patch of rocks at the entrance but, in his hurry to escape the worst of the blow, which threatened to break at any time, the captain piled the ship up thoroughly on the reef. We were doing eight knots at the time and there wasn’t an earthly of backing her off again.
“Out boats,” the old man ordered as soon as the hopelessness of the position was apparent. “She’ll pound to pieces in an hour when the worst of it arrives and we’ve still a chance to get ashore.”
The first mate looked at the rocky coast, then at the storm.
“You can’t make it,” he said quietly. “Best take a chance with the ship. There’s a lifeboat down the bay and they may get here before she breaks up. The seaboats will never live once the blow hits them.”
“I’m not imposing my judgment on anyone in this case,” said the captain, addressing the entire crew who had hurriedly gathered on the boat deck. “You may make your own choice. Personally I think our only hope is a straight dash for shore, but if any of you choose to remain aboard you may do so.”
Whether it was on account of my own good judgment or whether it was out of affection for Charlie, I remained behind and the two of us saw the three small boats push off into the waters that were already beginning to boil angrily. A few half-cheery hails passed between the small craft and the ship as we parted and the skipper shouted to Upton, reminding him to wind the chronometers if the craft held together for another twenty-four
hours. All in all, it was somewhat of a grim comedy— but stark tragedy was not far behind. With every minute the wind increased and the combers, battering our weather broadside, sent foreboding grindings and dull shudders through the rock-impaled hull. With a shout of rage the full force of the gale broke upon us and tore past at terrific speed in the direction of the three boats as they pulled frantically for the shore.
Garments streaming in the gale, our hair matted from the continuous rain of spume that was thrown mast-high over the vessel, Upton and I stood on the open bridge and, forgetting our own peril, cursed helplessly as we saw the great wall of black water relentlessly overtaking the fleeing boats. Three hundred yards from shore the race was won and lost. The fight was mercifully short. It was probably less than a minute from the time that the storm had caught them that the last of the boats turned turtle. There were tears mixed with the spray on Upton’s face when we turned away and a great sob shook him.
A light in the porthole of the wireless cabin, glimmering in the hopeless dusk, attracted our attention and, the fate of the ship being now entirely in the hands of Providence, we made our way across the trembling planks to Relfe’s sanctum. To our intense surprise we discovered the operator coolly sitting with his, feet cocked up on the table, listening to a radio program.
“Good Lord,” Upton exploded. “I thought you were with the boats.”
“I should have been,” admitted Reife, “if I hadn’t been so darned true to this self-sacrificing profession. I stuck to the earphones five minutes too long. Not that it makes much difference, other than that I’ll probably live half an hour longer than if I’d found a place in the boats and suffer that much longer.”
“Don’t talk rot,” the mate ordered. “We’ll live through the night and the gale’ll drop in the morning.” A vicious sea climbed the weather beam of the boat and thundered across the deck. The entire craft groaned protestingly and again, from the direction of the keel, came the heart-stilling rasping of rock and steel. “Does that listen like it?” grinned Reife wryly.
“I suppose you’ve sent out the customary S.O.S.?” Upton asked, dropping the question of our continued existence abruptly.
“Aye,” answered the operator. “I was in touch with the lifeboat station and they’re doing what they can. Unfortunately my set’s been badly jarred and I can’t send a word now. Won’t be able to hear anything, either, when the sea gets to the engine-room and the dynamo. Incidentally, the lights’ll go out.”
“The sea’s not going to reach the engine-room,” stated Upton doggedly, apparently deaf to the continuous sound of rock and sea tearing at the ship’s belly. “The for’ard holds are going to be the only damp spots. Keep a watch at the starboard scuttle, Birch lad, and I’ll stick by this one. You, Reife, eliminate that static and pick us up a nice cheery programme. It’s no use listening for messages when we can’t reply. Switch off the lights, too. Can’t see a thing outside with them on.” There we stood in the darkness for fifteen minutes while Reife attempted to pick up a station that was sufficiently clear to be heard above the fury of the hurricane. It was not to be wondered at that he had some difficulty, but suddenly, after a good deal of futile muttering, an announcer’s voice came in clearly “—watchers on the shore saw the three boats capsize and it is feared that the entire crew has been lost as there is a high sea running.”
“That’s us,” stated Upton quietly. “Funny, eh?” “Ghastly,” grunted Reife.
“We will now have a solo by that popular vocalist Miss Elsie Frigate—” continued the announcer, switching unconcernedly from death to life.
“By golly, I’d forgotten it was Friday night,” I said. “I hadn’t,” declared Charlie.
“The name of her selection is,” droned the announcer, “is—here, look out! One moment please.” Then, after a pause. “Miss Frigate is slightly indisposed. That incomparable jester, Mr. Syd. Shoestring will—” “She’s fainted,” I hazarded.
“No,” countered Upton, “she wouldn’t do that. She’s a seaman’s daughter. She’d feel bad, naturally. That’s worth a lot. Wish I had called to see her, at that. It wouldn’t have done any harm seeing how things have worked out.”
“So you don’t think we’ll live through it, after all,” shot Reife accusingly.
A huge sea pounded the ship further on to the rocks and she took a greater list.
“I don’t know,” said Upton.
The “incomparable jester” finished his turn and again the nasal voice of the announcer cut in.
“A fireman from the doomed ship, apparently the only survivor of the party in the boats, has been rescued from the surf and states that three men are still aboard the vessel, which is momentarily expected to break up or slip into the deep water and founder. Those who refused to leave are First Mate Upton and Second Mate
Birch. Wireless Operator Reife, who remained at his post with the loyalty of his profession, was apparently left behind in the rush to the boats.”
“An aromatic bouquet for a salty grave, but accepted with thanks,” laughed Reife mirthlessly.
“The Harmony Six will now play that popular foxtrot—” the announcer recommenced, “entitled — One moment please. As you were. Miss Elsie Frigate will sing ‘When You Come Home’.”
Talk about drama! It was a proper thrill, even to a man who didn’t know whether or not the next moment was to be his last. Always liked that song; it was a big favorite with us in the naval reserve during the war. Here we were, three men sitting in the blackness of the wireless cabin with our feet dangling over the precipice of eternity, and Elsie Frigate, her body a thousand miles away, telling the blonde giant who had never set eyes on her that she loved him and that all would be fair when he came home at eventide. Oh, there was no mistaking it. It wasn’t a song for a million listeners-in; it was Elsie Frigate, gambling on a long chance that Upton would hear and telling him to hang on. Maybe it was imagination, but I’d have sworn that the pounding sea grew silent as it listened to the brave beating of a woman’s heart.
“Shut it off,” ordered Upton, the moment the song had finished and the grating voice of the announcer was heard again.
We stood in silence for several minutes while the wind screamed and the spray rattled viciously against the cabin.
“There was no mistaking it,” I said finally. “Lucky dog.”
The mate pulled his pipe from his pocket and in the light of a match we could see his face. It was a beautiful sight if any man’s features can be described as such.
“No, there was no mistaking it,” he said slowly. “I’m sorry for you chaps, but I don’t mind, on my own account, if the old tub goes now—I’m only afraid that she won’t. All right, Reife, switch her on again and you two get what pleasure you can. I’m going on the bridge.”
In view of the fact that this story has been told, it goes without saying that we were still hanging to the reef in the morning. It was a miracle; another good sea would have spelled “finish”; but, as Upton had predicted, the wind died with the dawn and the lifeboat
took us off. The mate had remained alone on the bridge all night, due largely to the fact that I knew that such was his desire.
Naturally, I spent a good many hours wondering what his course would be once we were on solid land again. By all the rules of the game he should have headed straight for Elsie Frigate in story-book fashion. Yet I felt he would do no such thing—and I was right. Within twenty-four hours he had accepted the command which had already been offered him; had expressed his willingness to go “down under” where a Friday night would mean nothing to the anaemic radio with which the ship was equipped. He offered to take me as his first mate and I accepted gladly.
She was a tidy craft; plenty of power, clean, and equipped with comfortable living quarters. The captain’s suite was especially snug. Harkness, the big shareholder in the company that owned her, explained how he had skippered the ship himself for several years and had taken his wife to sea with him. He hadn’t given up the command until long after he was independently wealthy; until he had lost his life-partner.
“It was a strain in the blood,” he said. “She was a talented woman; could have made a name for herself ashore; but she came of a family of seafarers and there was nothing for it but that she must marry me and sail the seven seas. Of course, we did have our good days on the beach, too.”
“Was she really happy?” Upton asked earnestly, apparently oblivious to the fact that he was getting a trifle intimate with his employer.
“I think she was -really,” said Harkness seriously.
“It’s a terrific temptation,” muttered Charlie when we were alone, “but I’d rather that she go on caring for me at a distance, treasuring a few illusions, than have her hate me for bringing her up against the hardness of reality.”
THREE days before we were to sail, Upton gave me a bit of leave that I requested, and it was not until the evening preceding the morning of departure that I returned. Our new home, riding at anchor in the stream, looked mighty trig as a boatman ferried me out through the dusk. The star-like lights from the scuttles fell in golden lines across the gently heaving waters of
the harbor and the long hull and slender masts stood delicately etched against the rich purple backdrop of the sky.
As the dinghy approached the towering bulk of the steamer, a song drifted across the water, a familiar haunting tune—a familiar voice. Gradually the words became distinguishable.
“I must down to the seas again,
To the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way,
Where the wind’s like a whetted knife.”
“Sea Fever!” Elsie Frigate ! Charlie LTpton drenching himself on his last Friday night in the glory of the magic voice he was to leave behind—forever perhaps.
Moodily I climbed the ship’s side and walked to the upper works. “Sea Fever” had ceased, but a gay little tune, a song with the joy of living in it, had taken its place. I went to the wireless room. It was dark. The captain apparently had caused the loud speaker to be taken to his cabin. Without knocking I threw the door open and the happy, lilting words swept out in a gorgeous flood.
It ceased abruptly as I stepped in. Upton was at his desk, his pen poised above the log. In a far corner of the cabin was a woman, calmly adding little feminine touches to the decoration of the place. She was a bit taller than the usual run and there was something to her—not a skimpy lath like those poor old Hazlett used to think were such knockouts. Same with her face. It had lines like a yacht, not a square blob like an eggand-butter boat. And she was dark—long black hair, black and shiny like hard coal, with a bit of natural curl in it.
Charlie rose and faced me sheepishly. The woman had a frank, friendly smile on her lips. Lord knows what my expression was, but without being able to check myself I cried: “Elsie Frigate!”
Upton, red-faced, stammered. “That was only her professional name. She’s Mr. Harkness’s daughter — Elsie Harkness.”
The girl blushed a bit, too, but her voice was steady,, the voice of a woman of the sea who knows love without tinseled sentimentality: who knows strength without display. As she came toward me, her hand outstretched, she said, “That was only my maiden name. I'm Charlie’s wife—Elsie LTpton.”