A story of the sea, of cowardice and courage, and the strange fate of a man who could not forget
R. V. GERY
THEY will still tell you about the singular scene which brought an abrupt end to the presentation to Captain Chandler. What happened in the gaily decorated hall that night is common property and made an excellent press story next day; but the why and the wherefore of it is another matter altogether.
Briefly,Captain Hubert Chandler of the freighter. Aurora, master mariner in steam and fifty-eight years of age, was tendered a civic reception by the city of his birth. He received an address of congratulation and compliment, and a gold medal the size of a soup plate, for an exploit which set the cap—to quote an enthusiastic leader writer— “on a lifetime of strenuous and undismayed endeavor up and .down the seven seas of the world.”
The exploit had been nothing less than the rescue, in a freezing Atlantic blizzard, of the liner Toledo, hopelessly broken down and drifting off Newfoundland. She had been off course and helpless for the better part of two days, filling the ether with despairing wails for help and getting little response, her big sisters being far to the south and anyhow occupied with their own concerns in the storm. The world was on tenterhooks for her and her 600 passengers, inexorably approaching the cruel cliffs; and when Chandler passed his hawser-standing erect in the stern sheets of his boat, in the best traditions of the sea—and plucked her bodily off shore, you might almost have heard the gasp of relief that went up.
Sensation followed when the Toledo’s passengers told their tale, backed, as was seemly, by the liner’s officers. The rescue was clearly the maritime exploit of a decade, and it was at once established that Captain Chandler had been the hero of it. There was no hogging of the credit here. His own crew was blasphemously lyrical in his praises, for it had been, it appeared, nothing but his bulldog determination that had taken the Aurora into that shrieking inferno of water and brought her out of it with the crippled Toledo at her tail. It was a one-man show, and for once there was no cavilling.
The town’s meeting was held on a December evening, with the mayor in the chair, a score of magnificos in support of him on the platform, thousands of the citizenry present in person to applaud, and a radio audience of any number you like to think of. Banked chrysanthemums in golden masses surrounded the chair in which the guest was to sit. The framed address, all gilt and scrollwork, stood on a table for all to see. with the slightly garish gold plaque at its side. The paunchy little mayor himself, that licensed spellbinder, was a-glitter with gold, in the trappings of the city’s chains and collars. There was a positive blaze of yellow metal up there.
They led Chandler in and sat him down, and he looked straight in front of him. He was a thickset man, grizzled and awkward and extremely nervous. It was observed by the gentlemen of the press that he clasped and unclasped his stubby fingers, and swallowed from time to time as if his tongue clave to the roof of his mouth. A sob sister immediately below him took one sharp glance and began to make notes for a half column on the modesty of the true hero.
A tiny pause, and the mayor rose to his feet.
“IVe are met here this evening ...”
Chandler had been seeing things so far through a wavering mist. The sea of faces had been simply a sea, expressionless and dim. Even the platform, with its masses of yellow flowers and glitter of yellow metal, had been shadowy, unreal. But at the first note of the mayor’s throaty voice, something seemed to click free. He saw and heard clearly. Clear as a bright day in the tropics. Every intonation of the mayor, every rustle of a programme, each petal on the yellow chrysanthemums, every staring pair of eyes—the hall suddenly hit Chandler with the impact of a bullet. Then, as abruptly, it vanished, and things began to happen to him.
T_JE WAS back on a bridge again, but the bridge was -*not the Aurora's. It was a much smaller, more cramped affair, rusty, sun-blistered. It swayed dizzily as the thirdrate old tramp, whose superstructure it was, rolled over a slow, ominous swell. The heat was frightful, yet the sun itself was out of sight, sunk in a circumambient orange haze that veiled the horizon to within a quarter-mile of the ship, and seemed to begin overhead at the mast tops.
Chandler was standing on his bridge, he found. It would lxbetter to say remembered, for remembered it was. Every knot in the planking at his feet was familiar, every kink in the battered rail. His eye, wandering to the lifebelt lashed at the top of the ladder, read with no particular shock of surprise, “Iris, Portland.” Instinctively, he found himself glancing down at his wrists. Yes, there were the new stripes, the ones he had sewn on at—where was it? Manila, to be sure. And this Iris, incongruously named old tub. was his first command; thirty, no, thirty-three years back in the Pacific. He put his hand up to his face and found it smooth-shaven, round, full again.
For the merest fraction of a second the hall swam back. The mayor was just finishing his first sentence.
“.4 man in honoring whom we do honor to ourselves . . .”
Chandler heard it distinctly; then he was back on that bridge again. There was a woman there now; a young woman in a shaded deck chair, reading a book. Chandler caught her profile, and the profile of the old man dozing beside her. He remembered them, again w'ith that queer sense of numbness. Jessica—Jessie Hunt, and her father the missionary. Chandler was taking them out to Noumea; and there they would pass from his life, go home by the steamer. That was, unless . . .
The girl looked up and smiled at him, and Chandler felt the thrill of it even through that strange half-daze. They had gone far, these two, in the slow weeks down the islands. Leaning over the rail in the tropic nights, the girl and the swaggering young seaman had talked in undertones. Chandler grinned at her, waved back.
Down below him, the sob sister at the press table, watching him tigerishly, caught that flicker on Chandler's cheek and scribbled a swift note in shorthand.
Chandler went over to the deck chair, and Jessica closed her book, while the old missionary awoke from his nap.
"Hot!” he murmured. “Storm coming.”
“No,” said Chandler omnisciently. “No storm. The glass was steady at noon. Fair weather tomorrow.”
Old Hunt shook his head.
“You don’t know these seas like I do, captain,” he objected. “There’ll be a storm.”
Chandler felt Jessica’s eyes on him. He threw a chest.
“Storm, then,” he said indulgently. “Let it come. We can handle it.”
The girl laughed. I íe had swung her off her feet. Chandler knew the devil-may-care, cocksure young captain. At Noumea he would have something to say to her. She would be a girl for any man. with her gentle beauty. He twisted his little mustache and returned her laugh, showing strong white teeth. Old Hunt beamed; it was all right with him.
COME ONE came up the bridge ladder. Collins, this was, Chandler remembered; his first mate, a grizzled veteran, whom nothing but a taste for riotous living had kept out of a master’s berth long ago. Collins drank. Well, that wasn’t one of Bert Chandler’s faults, thank heaven. That was why his nerves were all right, while poor old Collins’ were shaky. Not to h trusted in a pinch, Collins.
The mate went into the chartroom without a look at the skipper. Bit scornful, was he, of young captains who philandered with lady passengers? Well, let him be: it didn’t matter what Collins thought about things. Chandler looked down at Jessica and got the answer he had already grown to expect.
Then the mate was out again, his face serious.
"See the glass, sir?”
“Why. no. Not since noon, that is. It was steady then. Why?”
"Dropped nearly a degree,” Collins said dully. "We’re in for something, sir.”
"Stuff!” Nevertheless Chandler went in and glanced at the instrument. Collins was right. The needle had fallen headlong; it was still dropping as he tapped the glass.
For a fleeting second Hubert Chandler felt a sickish qualm in the pit of his stomach. He had experienced the same sensation once or twice before; some kind of a reaction to surprise, no doubt. In a moment it had passed, and he had turned to Collins, who was watching him expectantly.
"Well?” he asked with a touch of irritability. "What is it? Never see a glass drop before?”
The mate shook his head.
“Not like that, sir without there bein’ the devil to pay within six hours. We’ll have to watch out. She’s in no shape for a snorter.”
“That’s for me to say, Mr. Collins,” Chandler heard himself reply. "Get the chart and let’s check observations. I’m not letting a bit of weather faze me.” He put his finger on the much pencilled sheet. "We’re there or thereabouts,” he pronounced. “Safe enough, unless it comes on to blow from the northward —which it won’t.”
Collins said nothing. He had already had a snub or two from his young superior, and did not relish any more.
"We’ll hold on,” Chandler decided. "Might blow a bit later, perhaps; but she can take it.”
The voice-pipe whistle sounded and Chandler went across to it. His engineer, old Dingwall, spoke.
"Hae ye ony instructions, skipper?” he asked cautiously. “It looks like a dustin’ blawin’ up, and I’d no trust her very—”
"All right, Mr. Dingwall.” Chandler told him shortly. "You’ll get your orders when the time comes. Till then, keep her going.”
He replaced the whistle, but not before he had heard the dissatisfied growl from the other end of the pipe. Collins, who had been staring anxiousry out of the window, made bold to speak.
“I d run for it, sir,” he said flatly. "There’s a fair nest of reefs abeam, and if it did come down from the north w e’d be in hell’s own pickle.”
Through the open doorway Chandler caught a glimpse of Jessica Hunt. It needed that sight, somehow, to complete his ill-humor.
“That’ll do, Mr. Collins,” he snapped testily. "I'm in command here—and w'e’re holding on.”
He went out. Collins shrugged, looking after him.
As Chandler set foot on the deck, he heard again, as in a dream, the mayor’s voice.
"... gallant fellow,'' it went, heterodyning the rumble of a steamer’s old engines, “like all gallant fellows, unassuming ...” It trailed away.
He found himself at old Hunt’s side. The missionary was sitting up now. He seemed genuinely put about, and the girl had laid her book dow'n.
“You’ll have trouble, captain.” The old man unconsciously echoed Collins. "It’s coming down fast. I’ve seen too many of these things. Look, out there!”
He pointed off to port, where the orange haze had given place to a belt of deep, livid purple. The breeze had dropped dead, and through the stillness Chandler heard a voice again :
“Cautious—seamanlike qualities ...”
He found the girl’s deep, admiring glance on him, and threw his head and shoulders back with a chuckle .
“Yes,” he agreed. "Looks like something coming. It’ll be only a capful, though. Doesn’t frighten me.”
Playing to the gallery; his gallery of one. Again he got his reward; yet as he leaned on the rail, watching the menacing sky, he felt once again that odd, unconfessed empty sensation about the midriff. He shook it off, to find Hunt at his side, out of earshot of the girl.
"Take an old man’s advice, captain,” the missionary said in a low voice. "I’m no seaman. I needn’t tell you. But I know these storms, and—you’re very close to reefs here!”
Chandler stuck out his chin.
"Thanks, Mr. Hunt.” he said stiffly. "I think we’ll hold on.” He faced the missionary, dogged, obstinate.
The sob sister at the table got a whole paragraph out of the expression that appeared on his face above her. The mayor continued. He was in full flight now, rotund, palpitating. Eulogy was like wine to him, and he simply got drunk on it.
T-TUNT, offended at the rebuff, left Chandler and went below, leaving Chandler and the girl together on the bridge, with Collins sulking in the chartroom. Jessica came over to where the skipper stood.
“Is there any danger?” she asked quietly.
Her presence there wras the final prop to Chandler’s confidence.
"Danger!” he scoffed. "Not a bit of it. She’ll stand anything -that is, with handling, of course.”
He glanced down at her, glowing with sudden excitement at her obvious pride in him.
"Jessie,” he said in an undertone, so that Collins should not catch it, “I’ll look after you. For good, if you like . . .”
She stood for a moment, confused and hesitant, plucking at the corner of a handkerchief. Then, Chandler remembered, she raised her face to him and nodded, once and slowly. And Collins in the chartroom shouted frenzicdly and was out on the bridge, pointing.
It rushed dowm on them out of the northward—a crackling wall of lightning-flecked cloud, moving with the rush of an express train and the sound of a million serpents. Chandler took one glimpse at it. He caught Jessica by the shoulders and spun her about.
"Below!” he yelled at her, and “Hard a-port!” to the man at the wheel.
In his chair on the platform, Captain Hubert Chandler stirred, sat up a little and squared his shoulders. The sob sister achieved another phrase for her column—it was
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to be a full column now -and the mayor burbled on. He was in the quotation stage of oratory by now’, dredging deep in the Book of Ezekiel, John Masefield and the Hymnal.
The Iris shuddered in every unsound rivet of her, and lay over till her lee rail was all but awash. That was from the first blast of the w'ind. riding a little ahead of its accompanying slather of foam and solid water. Then these in turn hit her, and for a full minute she was invisible, overwhelmed by the sheer weight of the elements. Her boats, plucked from the davits as from hairpin wires, went clear down to leeward, stove like paper boxes. The bare foremast snapped carrot-fashion. Every movable thing about the decks vanished into the smother. From below came a chorus of shouts and cries, and the crash of crockery and broken gear.
In the chartroom, Collins and the steersman were hanging on to the wheel, which was jammed hard over. The mate’s blotched, dissolute face was set tight, save for the ceaseless movement of his jaws on a quid of tobacco. Chandler, trapped in the open, clung to the rail, battered breathless and dizzy. It would mean the loss of his life to relax his grip, even for a second.
Slowly, very slowly, the Iris righted, shedding torrents and cascades of water from her scuppers and superstructure. Her propeller, from racing wildly in an effervescence of air and sea. began to bite again, and her rocking engines steadied. Foot by foot she swung round, clawing her way into the wind’s eye.
Chandler watched his opportunity and made a dash across the deck. He kicked the chartroom door open and almost fell inside, supporting himself with one hand on the table while he rubbed the spindrift from his eyes with the other.
“Hard pounding!’’ he said with an attempt at jocularity. “She’ll do now, though.”
Collins merely looked at him enquiringly, as if curious to know what might be his next move. Chandler whirled on him.
“What the devil d’you mean by that mug of yours. Mr. Collins?” he demanded. “What’s the matter with you—cold feet, eh?” He scrutinized the mate narrowly, looking for signs of liquor on him. but Collins was cold sober. The man preserved silence under Chandler’s angry questioning, and nodded when the skipper told him to take charge while he went below to inspect damage.
“Sulky dog!” Chandler muttered to himself as he clawed down the ladder.
The Iris was a weary and dishevelledlooking object as she forged slowly ahead against wind and sea. Chandler, standing in the shelter of the house, grimaced to himself at the sight. Those empty davits and the splintered, trailing mast were not a reassuring spectacle to a master on his first command. However, he went below, his head still truculently cocked and a smile on
his face. That it hid something closely akin to dismay was his own business.
Dingwall stuck his head for a moment out of the engine-room hatch.
“Weel, sirr !” he said suggestively.
“Well!” Chandler took him up uncompromisingly. “What is it now?”
The Scotsman spat.
“Ou. juist naethin’ at all,” he said. “Only I’d be wishful to warn ye. Captain Chandler, sir, that thae engines o’ mine are aboot on their last legs. Mphm, ay !”
“And what the devil’s the use of telling me that now?” Chandler exploded. “My soul alive, man, there’s a place for everything.”
“Ay, there is,” Dingwall assented. “An’ richt here an’ noo’s the place to tell ye ye should ha’ been rinnin’ before this hours ago an’ not hoggin’ into it this gait. Thot’s a’ I’ve to say to ye, cap’n, at this time; but later on there’ll be mair heard of it, so I’m tellin’ ye—”
And with that Dingwall dropped back into his stifling department once more, leaving Chandler livid with fury. To add to the captain’s state of mind, words came to him out of the other world:
“. . . well and favorably regarded by every shipmate of his . . . popular ivith all ...”
TJTE WENT into the saloon to see his L passengers and found them busy. Slade, the young second officer, had been in his berth when the storm struck, and Chandler had wondered what had become of him. Now he was here, with a broken arm caused by a flying steel hawser; and old Hunt, with Jessica’s assistance, had just finished setting it. The two of them looked round as Chandler entered.
“A merciful escape, captain,” the missionary said. “Does the ship seem to stand this?”
Chandler spoke heartily.
“Sound as a bell.” he said. “Lost a bit of top-hamper, but nothing to worry over. We’ll ride this out, and then run for the nearest port.”
His manner was infectious, and both his hearers caught his mood. He gave young Slade a shoulder to his cabin and returned to the saloon. Something had evidently passed between father and daughter, for old Hunt laid a hand on his shoulder.
“Fine fellow !” he said benevolently. “I— we’re proud to know you. Hubert!” Jessica suddenly leaned over and kissed him.
At that touch. Chandler was back again in the hall. The mayor was working up to his peroration, with the press table below hard put to it to keep pace with the frothing torrent of words. The sob sister was on her third sheet of notes. The mayor proceeded :
‘ . . . magnificent specimen of manhood \ . . . true son of the sea . . . daring coupled with modesty . . .”
And Captain Chandler found himself j staring straight at the bank of yellow ; flowers before him. Their color struck him, I somehow ; and it was that color that was still before his eyes in the saloon again,!
with Jessica's arms still about his neck. Time, in this experience, counted for nothing; ten minutes had not actually passed since the mayor’s first words.
Old Hunt was beaming through his spectacles as Chandler disengaged himself reluctantly, with:
“I’ll have to be back on the bridge. They need me there.”
“Yes, go, my lad,” the missionary said. “We’ll be waiting here.”
“You’ll be safe enough with me,” Chandler told him. “There isn’t anything—”
A dull thump interrupted him. It came from somewhere in the steamship’s vitals, and was followed instantly by the roar of escaping steam and a long shudder, as if the engines were trying to wrench themselves loose from their bedplates. Then, high over the whistle of the wind and the rush of waters, a man began to scream, horribly, continuously.
Chandler jumped as if some one had stabbed him. His heart commenced to pound at his ribs, and a throttling sensation took him by the throat. He fled precipitately from the saloon and peered down the ladder into the engine room.
The place was a seething whirlpool of escaping steam. A blast of it, hot and clinging, hit Chandler in the face as he stooped closer. The engines had stopped, and from the murk below the cries continued to well up agonizingly. Chandler blenched at the sound.
A face showed through the cruel steam, the face of Dingwall. It was scalded raw all down one side of it; but the old Scotsman seemed not to notice such things. He was hauling himself up the ladder with one hand, a limp body over his shoulder. Chandler automatically dragged the two of them to safety. The second man was Dingwall’s assistant, like himself half-flayed with live steam, and unconscious.
“What—” Chandler stammered.
“Main steam pipe,” Dingwall said. “Thot’s whut comes o’ hoggin’ her intae it. I telled ye, cap’n—”
“Broken down!” There was horror now in Chandler’s voice.
“Broken doon! Ay, ’deed ye may say broken doon ! She’ll never tak’ steam again. An’ there’s twa laddies cookin’ alive in there yet. Stand aside, mannie. Get ye to yer bridge an’ do whut’s to be done there. Ma ain job’s here, an’ I’ll thank ye to leave me to it.”
Before Chandler could resent his tone or lift a finger to stop him, he had dumped the inert engineer on the deck and dropped down the ladder once again. Chandler stood gaping after him, irresolute.
Then he turned and ran up on to the bridge. As he went he noted, with a sickening qualm, that the Iris had already lost way and swung off beamwise to the vicious seas.
COLLINS met him in silence. There was nothing to say. Chandler’s face told more than any words could. Broken down beyond hope, lashed and hammered by the merciless storm from the north, and with miles of saw-toothed coral not an hour to leeward, the Iris was a doomed ship.
”... those in peril on the sea . . .” the mayor intoned, his practised gurgle cutting sharp across the confusion. “. . . such men as Captain Chandler know the meaning of that peril . . . have faced it . . . wideeyed, steady-handed, unappalled ...” Things went black then for Chandler; black and blank altogether. For an infinitesimal second there was neither Iris nor the crowded hall. Only, gnawing at him, that horrid, familiar clutch at the pit of the stomach, the cold hands of panic. Captain Chandler’s soul shrank and cowered away into abysses of despair. And the mayor wound himself up for a final outburst, and the sob sister watched Chandler intently.
Then he was back again on that bridge, fighting desperately for composure. The others were there, too—Collins, gloomily efficient, Slade with his broken arm, Dingwall still carrying his limp subordinate, the half dozen foc’s’le hands and a couple of
stokers, all that were left alive of the j engine-room staff. Old Hunt was there, and ¡ Jessica. The missionary was down on his ! knees, Chandler saw with a start. The ! man’s lips were moving soundlessly, and the girl was murmuring also though her eyes were on Chandler.
Not a hundred yards to leeward, moving inexorably nearer, were the coral reefs, grey and black, with the surf roaring about them. For miles on either hand they stretched, out into the fading light of evening and storm. It was a matter of minutes now.
Chandler was talking, and trying to steady his voice.
“Men,” he said, and it cracked in spite of him, “it’s every one for himself. We’re done ! No one could live in this—”
Collins grasped him by the arm.
“Stow that!” he growled. “This ain’t no time to be talkin’ that way. If that’s all you’ve got to say, shut your face! Who put us here, anyhow?”
There was a hateful murmur from the crew, and a rush. Chandler stepped back hastily, but Jessica Hunt had run out and was standing at his side. She clung to his arm and faced the men.
“No!” she cried, almost angrily. “That’s not fair. He’s done his best, you men. It isn’t his fault—”
A crash and a jolt hurled them pell-mell in a heap as the Iris struck. She lifted momentarily to an enormous white wave, and then was battered bodily down on the fangs of the coral. A great green sea, following the broken water, swept down on her, hiding her from sight. When it passed her decks were clear of humanity and her back broken. Plate by plate she began to go to pieces.
Photographically it flashed before Chandler—the cold of the plucking water, its salt strangle, the frantic fight for life in its depths. The weight of it was on his lungs, choking him, so that he gasped audibly in his chair. A man sitting next to him looked round quickly, and there was a little stir at the press table.
He tried to shout aloud, but no words came. He was clinging to a fragment of grating among the creaming surf, clinging with the tenacity of a madman. Lights danced and flickered before his eyes. And the mayor concluded:
“My friends, it is my privilege—it is our privilege—to extend the hand of welcome and congratulation to Captain Hubert Chandler of our fair city—hero, splendid gentleman, while man!”
He swung about dramatically, pudgy fingers extended to Chandler. But Chandler was on his feet, staring at other fingersslim, drowning fingers that came up out of the creaming water, clutching. They were within arm’s reach of his flimsy grating, the grating that he knew would never hold two. Chandler had seen them so any time and every time these thirty-three years -and now they rose up against him, with the i yellow flowers for background, in the night | of his triumph.
THE PRESS said next day that Captain Hubert Chandler stood perfectly still for an appreciable instant, clutching at his throat. Then he said something unintellible, turned, and ran blindly from the hall, leaving a very indignant mayor, an illuminated address, an extremely hideous gold plaque, and several thousand mystified fellow citizens behind him.
They found him next day floating in the harbor and said he was crazy; but the little sob sister, who had been seeing things in his face during the last few minutes of that celebration, wasn’t so sure. Whatever it was she saw must have been peculiar, for she tore up her notes and wouldn’t write her column and had a trying moment with her editor in consequence. Moreover, for some reason that may possibly be clear to ■ traffickers in mystery, you won’t be popular j with her if you buy her big yellow chrysanthemums. They remind her, she says i cryptically, of something she wants very badly to forget.