Captain Tommie Pollard demonstrates that the sea is no lady — And discovers a movie queen may be very much a woman
THE WEATHER was changing. At first the only sign of the change was a wide pale halo around the sun. Later a milky film spread across the sky. The halo contracted, choked the sun, dimmed it, and the deep blue of the Gulf Stream became a drab, whiteflecked grey. The wind increased steadily, and low greasy black clouds swept across the sky out of the northeast. Rain squalls raced across the sea, and the wind sang a low ominous song of warning.
The Nomad, down to her marks with Cuban sugar for New York, shoved steadily northward. She was a big squat-funnelled freighter. A broad-shouldered giant of the sea with power in every line. Her blunt bow smashed the rising seas, threw them back, and tossed the spray high so the wind caught it and hurled it vindictively against the heavy glass windows of the wheelhouse.
Sondra Láveme climbed to the bridge. The first mate was out on the weather wing, staring across the sea to windward. He was a thick-necked man with sloping, bulkx'k shoulders. Sondra was beside him before he knew, in the wail of the wind, that she was there. He glanced down at her and a grin spread across his leathery features.
“Better not let the skipper catch you up here,” he warned her.
She laughed carelessly.
"What can he do about it?" she asked.
“Well-1, he can put you off the. bridge,” he said. "He don’t like his watch officer distracted."
Sondra registered sudden innocence.
“Oh-h, do I distract you. Mr. Larsen?”
The mate chuckled. The wind pressed a silken rain cape against the young curves of her body. Slender and exquisite from the tips of her expensive slippers to the j>ale gold of her hair escaping in wind-whipped wisps from under a beret of pale blue, she had the breath-taking beauty that had swept her in three short years to a screen popularity that filled the motion-picture houses of the nation when her features were run. The mate’s eyes, mild blue and set deep under shaggy white brows, twinkled as he looked down at her.
“Now, is that a fair question to ask an old sailor with a trusting family ashore?” he said. “I’m just saying the skipper won’t like it.”
“He didn't say anything all the other times I’ve been up here," Sondra countered.
“It wasn’t blowing then, young lady.”
“Oh, hang the wind,” Sondra said. “It's fun up here. I think Captain Pollard is a stuffed shirt. And before 1 leave this ship I’m going to tell him so.”
“No time like the present,” a dry voice said behind her. She whirled. The captain was standing directly in back of her. He was young, lean and bronzed. His eyes, looking
at her from under the brim of a sou’wester, were cool grey and cynical. She felt her face burn as a flush swept up from her throat. She thought she detected the flicker of an amused smile as he noted her confusion. It made her want to slap his face. He was so darned sure of himself, she thought.
"I’m afraid,” he said quietly, “that Mr. Larsen was right. You’ll have to leave the bridge.”
Sondra’s eyes darkened rebelliously.
“I like it up here,” she said stubbornly.
Tommie Pollard sighed.
“The officer oh watch,” he said patiently, “is responsible for the safety of the ship and the lives of the crew. When a storm makes up, he must be free to give his undivided attention to his duties. Do I make myself clear?”
“Perfectly,” Sondra snapped. “You sound just like a textbook.”
“The consequences of not learning the lessons in some textbooks can be the loss of lives and millions of dollars worth of property, Miss Laverne,” Tommie said evenly. “Now, will you please go below?”
A COLD rage filled her as she left the bridge. She would have a few things to say to a certain socalled press agent when she got back to New York. “A star like you has got a responsibility to the public,” he had told her glibly, and she had fallen for it. “You’ve got to be glamorous off the screen too. Mysterious like. They expect it. They want you to be that way. Now, a cruise all by yourself on a freighter is an easy way to give them what they want. You want to be alone, see? You’ve got to rest so you can come back and give them more of yourself. Only, of course, you can be having a swell time for yourself all the while. It’s sort of fun on a freighter. And there’s spots in Havana where you can see things never heard of in Hollywood. So go on and have a good time for yourself while I dish out the baloney.” Baloney was right, Sondra thought bitterly. Sort of fun on a freighter! Spots in Havana ! Tommie Pollard ! Sondra sniffed. It wasn’t that Tommie didn’t have possibilities. There had been times w^hen she had caught herself looking at him, studying the way his hair curled a little just back of his ears. Thinking howdifferent was his easy, erect carriage
from the slouch of handsome men who were a dime a dozen around the studios. Only he always seemed to look at her as a responsibility. Not as a girl out of school looking for a little fun.
There was that time in Havana while the Nomad was loading sugar. She had gone ashore with Mr. Cole, the second mate. Tommie had given the second mate instructions. Morro Castle, the National Observatory, the Prado and Malecón and the Botanical Gardens. Dutifully Mr. Cole, a young man with an easy grin, had obeyed instructions until Sondra had wondered whether anything short of amputation would get her shoes off.
“If you show me another moss-covered rock,” she complained faintly, “I’ll scream. It’ll be months before I can look over my shoulder without expecting to see an old Spanish ghost following me. How about a little life? Some place where the natives let their hair down?”
The second mate grinned.
“How does Machete Pete’s sound?” he asked. “Murderous,” she said. “Let’s go !”
“Don’t let the Old Man know we went there,” the second mate cautioned. “He’d pin my ears down.”
“Cross my heart,” Sondra laughed. “Where is this pirate’s bucket of blood?”
“Down near the waterfront.”
It was a smoky little hole in a wall with tables around a small floor for dancing, and dirty waiters. They found a table in a corner. Sondra felt dark glittering eyes turn her way, and a slight shiver of apprehension went through her. In a dive in an American city she would have been safe. She was too well known. She wondered how many of these men with dark oily skins knew who she was, and what security such knowledge would amount to. There was something hungry about the way they stared at her.
“Well, this is the place,” the second mate said. “How do you like it?”
“H’mm,” Sondra murmured dubiously. She was watching a brown-skinned girl go through the contortions of what was theoretically a dance.
“It’s where the natives let their hair down,” the second mate grinned.
Sondra watched the girl.
“I guess it’s a good thing they do,” she said a little uncertainly.
In the applause that followed the final convulsions of the dance, she did not hear Tommie Pollard come up to the table.
“I thought I might find you here,” he said. “It’s a favorite haunt of Mr. Cole’s.”
The second mate flushed.
Sondra tried to cover him up.
“I made him bring me,” she said. “There’s no harm in it, is there?”
“Things happen in places like this,” Tommie said, “that you never read the answer to in a movie script. Mr. Cole should have known better. The Line could easily be liable for anything that happened to you in the escort of one of its officers. I think we’d better be going.”
“Don’t be silly,” Sondra said.
“This is the twentieth century.
Besides, I’m not ready to go yet.”
She remembered the uneasiness she had felt with the eyes staring at her. Actually she would have liked to have gone.
But there was something about the way Tommie Pollard was telling her to leave that irked.
“Mr. Cole and I will be along shortly,” she said.
“You’ll come now,” Tommie said, looking at her steadily. “Mr. Cole, we’re going back to the ship.”
The second mate stood up. Sondra remained stubbornly in her seat. She knew she was being childish, but it was the only way she could think of to counter his authority. She knew they wouldn’t leave her and they couldn't pick her up and carry her. What Tommie Pollard would have done she never found out because a dark, heavily-built Cuban approached them.
“The señorita does not wish to leave, no?” he said, bowing to her and throwing a wave of garlic toward her. His smile was oily and somehow like the grin of a snake. “The senors can go. I will see that the señorita enjoys herself, yes?”
Precisely what happened after that Sondra did not see. She knew only that the Cuban suddenly gasped, doubled up and sank to the floor. His face was twisted in pain. The
next thing Sondra knew she was outside, walking rapidly between the second mate and Tommie Pollard.
“What did you do to him?” she asked. “I didn’t see you hit him.”
“Did you see those two men run over to him from another table?” he asked.
“Well, if I had hit him they would have known he wasn't badly hurt and they would have come after us. We might not have got out of there. As it was, they didn't know what happened and they wanted to find out. That gave us the time we needed.”
“B-but what did you do?”
“Something that isn’t in the Queensberry rules,” he said shortly. “He’ll be all right soon.”
THAT had been in Havana. In any script, Tommie would have thawed out after that. But he didn’t. It irritated her. To Sondra Láveme it was a new experience to have a man look upon her as scarcely more than a valuable piece of cargo consigned to his care. What he had said to the second mate in the privacy of his stateroom, she didn’t know. But the second mate had been a chastened young man since they had sailed out of Havana.
All that day the gale increased steadily. Toward evening the Nomad was rolling rail down and taking solid water over her bow. Heavy seas jarred her, lifted her high on their shoulders and dropped her with sickening swiftness into the troughs. Every now and then a shudder ran through the big hull as the screw was lifted clear of the water and raced in the air. It was the second mate’s watch.
but Sondra knew that the first mate and Tommie Pollard were also on the bridge. She saw the steward take them sandwiches and a big pitcher of black coffee.
When he came down again he said, “Captain Pollard says he would like to have you come up on the bridge, if you don’t mind.”
She experienced a mild shock when she entered the wheelhouse. There was none of the dramatic tenseness she had half expected to see. Out on the weather wing of the bridge the first mate stood on spread legs, balancing against the roll and pitch. His head was bowed and his shoulders hunched against the gale. He stared steadily, patiently, to windward. The wind was a wild pulsing howl. Rain and spray splashed against the heavy glass of the windows. But inside the wheelhouse it was warm and comfortable. The quartermaster stood at the wheel, handling it almost as easily, because of the powerful steam steering engine, as if he were guiding the big freighter into a still harbor. Tommie Pollard beckoned her to the forward part of the wheelhouse where he was standing. She stood beside him,
holding to the handrail with both hands, gazing over the sea.
“Look out there,” he said.
She saw the great grey seas march out of the North. Ponderous mountains of water off which the wind blew a thin, white smoke of spray. She watched the Nomad's bow lift to a big sea. Up, up, went the blunt bow. Up until the sea dropped out of her line of vision ahead and all she could see were the wind-ripped clouds that scudded by close overhead. For just an instant the Nomad hung poised atop the wave. Then she plunged. She dived down into the trough with a sickening swoop that left Sondra breathless. She hit bottom with a thundering roar, and a great fan of spray rose up, enveloped all of the bow and dashed against the window in front of her. Sondra felt the Nomad stagger as the following sea broke over the bow. She felt the shock as it swept aft and broke with a roar against the superstructure. The Nomad reeled, trembled, and lifted slowly. She rolled far over on her side, and the water boiled overboard over the well deck rail and spouted from the freeing ports. Then the big freighter began to rise again to another sea.
Sondra felt Tommie’s eyes on her.
“I wanted you to see this.” he said. “I thought it might give you an idea of why things must be done in certain ways on shipboard. There are no retakes if you miss your cue out here.”
Sondra thought of the great turbines below, humming a song of power in the glistening engine room. She watched the massive bow shoulder a sea, split it and throw it to either side in a smother of spray. The ship was magnificent. She was something alive and strong. A little shiver ran through Sondra as she thought of the power in the thrust
of the big hull against the sea. And all that was under the command of this quiet young man.
“I’m getting the idea,” she said softly.
IT WAS late that night when Sondra awoke with a feeling of uneasiness that turned to panic even before she was out of her berth and climbing frantically into some clothes The Nomad was rolling far over on her side. Each time she went over it seemed that she could not recover but would, instead, go right on over. She felt the jar of seas breaking against the freighter’s side, and heard the rush of water along the deck outside her cabin. It was almost impossible to stand, even when she held on to the side of her berth. But the thing that sent a cold, paralyzing fear through her was not anything she heard or felt. It was something she could not hear or feel. It was like the loud silence in a quiet room when a clock suddenly ceases its soft ticking. The Nomad’s engines were not running.
She stumbled out on deck. It seemed to her that the
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ship was a blaze of light. Yet she saw no one. She clung to the handrail and worked her way toward the bridge. The Nomad was lying in the trough. Something blacker than the blackness of the night loomed beyond the light. And then she was engulfed in a cold, suffocating crush of water. She was flattened against the steel wall of the deck house. The breath was crushed out of her, and she had to cling desperately to the handrail to keep from being swept away as the sea rushed aft. It was gone as quickly as it had come. But it left her weak and trembling. The wind sliced through her drenched clothes. And suddenly she got panicky. Stumbling and slipping, she ran along the deck to the steep, ladderlike stairs to the bridge. Climbing them, she banged her knee cruelly. She scarcely noticed the pain. She knew only that in that moment she wanted to be near Tommie Pollard. It didn’t matter that he had been stuffy and officious. It didn’t matter that he thought of her only as a piece of property to be carefully guarded. It mattered only that he snould be near her, giving her confidence and reassurance by his mere presence that everything would come out all right.
He stared at her when she burst into the wheelhouse. He turned to the quartermaster. “Go tell the steward to bring Miss Laverne some dry clothes,” he said. Then he turned to her. “You can change in the chart room. Now, what are you doing up here?”
The very calmness of his voice steadied her.
“I—wanted to find out what happened. Why the engines are stopped.”
“Because we lost our rudder,” he said. “Came down on a derelict, I guess.”
She stared at him. Without a rudder, all the might and power of the great ship was nothing. It was as helpless as the very derelict that had crippled it. And yet Tommie Pollard could think to order dry clothes for her.
“What happens now?” she asked.
“It’s already happening,” he said. “Down on the well deck.”
Sondra stepped to the window of the wheelhouse and looked down.
Under the brilliant light of the cargo floodlights, she saw the first mate and a dozen of the crew. Water, black under the lights, boiled and swirled around them up to their waists. Seas broke over the rail, swept them off their fret, and hurled them against the steel bulwarks. Bruised and battered, they struggled back to their task. A dismantled cargo boom swung from another boom. Attached to it was a great piece of tarpaulin, edged with chain and weighted at the bottom with an anchor. A heavy hawser led from it overside and came back through the hawse pipe forward and led to the winch. Along the hawser Sondra saw several small canvas bags that dripped oil,
“That’s a sea anchor,” Tommie told her. “We’ll get it over and it’ll hold our head in the wind. Those bags will let an oil slick down on us that will keep the seas from breaking. We ought to ride dry.”
She watched the sea anchor being swung over the rail and dropped down toward the sea. The mate swung with an axe at the tackle that held it. The hawser ran out through the hawse pipe as the Nomad was swept down wind. Then, as the cable was snubbed at the winch, the Nomad’s bow swung slowly into the wind, and was held there by the drag of the sea anchor. Out of the darkness a heavy oil slick drifted down, smothering the breaking crests of the seas. The Nomad lifted easily to the smooth swells. Seas no longer broke over the rail. The well deck cleared and the Nomad rode dry,
Sondra turned to Tommie. What she had seen assured her that the Nomad was in no immediate danger.
“And now, I suppose,” she said, “we send out an SOS. and wait for a ship to tow us in?”
It was then that she noticed how tired he was. He shook his head slowly.
“Not until she’s had a chance to fight back,” he said. “Something happens to a ship once she’s been towed in like a barge. She’s never the same again, somehow.”
And something would happen to a young shipmaster who, under all his efficiency, was romantic, Sondra thought. He would not hold his head so high or his shoulders so square. Impulsively she reached out and laid her hand on his arm.
“I wish I could help you,” she said.
AN ALMOST imperceptible tremor ran through his arm under her hand. And, somehow, as he looked at her she torgot the howl of the wind and the thunder of the breaking seas outside. She forgot that she was Sondra Laverne and he was only a young skipper whom nobody knew'. They were two who had come, in that moment, to understand each other.
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “You are helping.”
The steward came in then before she could say anything. He had a bundle of her clothes over his arm.
“I just took what I could find, miss,” he said apologetically. “I hope I got the right things—not being much of a hand at this kind of picking.”
She smiled and thanked him and vrent into the chart room and closed the door. She stripped off her wet clothes and rubbed her slender white body dry with the towel the steward had included. She smiled at the quantity of underthings the steward had brought, and put on a wrarm woollen skirt and a heavy sweater. When she emerged from the chart room, the chief engineer was talking to Tommie Pollard.
“Aye,” he was saying, “it’ll do the trick. A boom for a stock, sandwiched between two hatch covers bolted together will make a bonnie rudder. We can drill through the transom and bolt a bit o’ pipe to it big enough to fit o’er the boom for an upper bearing. Then a strong back bolted at richt angles to the stock’ll make a tiller ye can work wi’ tackle to the deck winches. But there’ll be one bit of deeficulty.”
“What’s that?” Tommie asked.
“The top bearing’ll no be strong enough alone. Ye’ll hae to send a mon o’er the side in a bowline to make the heel fast.”
“Larsen and Cole are already getting the hatches open to shift some of the cargo forward. With sugar you get down to your marks before the holds are full, so there’s room forward to take some of the after load. That’ll bring her down by the head and up at the stern.”
The chief engineer scratched his head dubiously.
“Well, I hope ye’re richt, laddie. But yon’s a heavy sea and I hae me doots ye can bring her stem high enough to keep a mon clear o’ it though ye jettison the rest o’ the cargo aft. That lashing’ll hae to be made to where the heel o’ the auld rudder was supported, That’s under the screw, laddie. Do ye ken what’ll happen to a mon if a sea smoshes him against the edge o’ the screw blades?”
“We’ll have to take that chance,” Tommie said. “Get your gang on deck with torches and drills, and get the rudder ready.”
The chief engineer shrugged.
“As ye. say, laddie,” he muttered. “The rudder’ll be ready by the time ye get the cargo shifted.”
Sondra looked uncertainly at Tommie after the chief engineer had gone.
“Tommie?” she said.
He looked at her as she said his given name for the first time.
“That man,” she said. “The one you send down, will he be in danger?”
“It can’t be helped,” he said. “MacGregor is right. I can’t bring the ship down at the head beyond decks awash. That won’t raise the stern quite high enough.” “Then don’t do it,” she pleaded. “The ship isn’t worth risking a human life for.” He looked at her queerly.
“You don’t understand,” he said quietly. “To a sailor, the ship comes first. Before anything else. Ships couldn’t sail the seas if it were any other way.”
“I see only that you are going to order a man to what may be his death,” she said. “Tommie, I don’t want you to have that on your conscience.”
But as she looked at him she read a fixity of purpose in his eyes that she knew neither she nor any other human agency could change. Silently she turned away from him and looked down on the well deck below. The hatch was open. Rope nets swung over it from a cargo boom. Men were carrying gunny sacks of sugar from the after hold and tossing them into the nets. As fast as the nets were filled they were lowered into the hold and emptied by other men below.
Sondra watched them. It was a long, difficult and treacherous trip from the after hatch to those nets—with 150 pounds of dead weight on a man’s shoulders. Though she rode with dry decks, the Nomad was pitching heavily. A man could be thrown. He could slip. There were a dozen ways in which hurt could come to men as they tired. There were hundreds of bags to be carried that way— and only a few men to carry them. It was killing work. It was dangerous, and would become increasingly dangerous as fatigue made the men careless and less alive to respond to the movement of the ship. And it would all have to be done over again. If the jury rudder was successfully rigged, all that weight would have to be carried aft before the Nomad could steam into those heavy seas again. Out of the comer of her eye, she saw Tommie Pollard watching his crew. Watching them with a set, determined manner that told her he was calculating the amount of cargo they could shift before they collapsed. He would make them carry the last pound on their hands and knees if it was necessary, she knew.
ALL THAT night the crew of the Nomad toiled at shifting the cargo. Slowly the bow went down until the sea started to wash in through the freeing ports. Then the weary, red-eyed procession ceased and the hatch was closed. Sondra heard the shrill cry of the bosun’s whistle. There was no rest for the men of the Nomad in that drab, wind-torn dawn.
The steward brought breakfast up to the bridge. Sondra ate mechanically. Long before, Tommie Pad left her alone up there. There was no need for a bridge watch. Every man was needed for the work at hand. She looked up, vaguely surprised, when the second mate came in.
“I’m to stay with you,” he said. His eyes were bloodshot and tired. “The skipper wants you to stay here until the rudder is hung.”
“Oh-h,” she said. “Are they ready?” “Practically.”
“W-who is going over?” she asked.
She knew them all. From the sweatiest oiler of the engine-room gang to Tommie Pollard. And every one of them had shown her how much her presence aboard meant. She felt close to all of them.
“I suppose the first will get the call,” the second mate said. “And take it from me, he can have the job ! Ten feet in the air one second and twenty feet under the next.” Sondra shuddered. The first mate had a family ashore. But he was the logical choice. He was the strongest man on the
ship and probably the best sailor for that sort of work. He could be depended upon to do the job right—if it could be done at all. So Tommie would send him over. Because the ship came first. If the mate failed, then he would send out a call for help. But the mate wouldn't fail. Unless the sea caught him and . . . Sondra remembered what the chief engineer had said about the blades of the propeller.
Suddenly she rose to her feet.
The second mate shouted.
“Hey ! Come back here !”
She didn’t pay any attention to him. All that mattered was that somehow she had to stop Tommie Pollard from doing this thing. The ship was all important to him. But Tommie was all important to her. That knowledge swept over her like a warm wave. She couldn’t let him go through with it. It would be worse for him to have the mate’s life on his conscience than to have failed as a shipmaster.
She ran along the deck to the after part of the superstructure. She saw that the Nomad’s stern was high out of water. The well deck was crowded with men and gear. The poop was occupied by two cargo booms rigged as shear legs guyed to the mast. The jury rudder hung under the shears. It was being lowered over the stem as Sondra climbed down from the superstructure to the well deck. Men hauled on tackle to guide it and keep it from swinging as the Nomad pitched in the seaway. She saw the first mate, the chief engineer and Tommie Pollard standing together on the poop. She heard unintelligible orders barked. Saw them obeyed by tired men who no longer heard the scream of the wind or felt the cold sting of rain from a sudden squall.
Fascinated, Sondra watched the rudder go down. By an intricate pattern of rope and tackle it was steadied, then hauled up, and the improvised stock guided through the bearing the engine-room gang had secured out board on the transom. Immediately men began to fasten a section of steel beaming at right angles to the stock. Sondra heard the whine of power drills boring holes in steel for bolts. She saw men with big wrenches slip bolts through the holes and tighten up the nuts. The giant tiller was secured. Tackle was run from it to the deck winches.
The chief engineer called to Tommie Pollard.
Ready! Sondra felt the power of the heavy seas in the lift of the Nomad under her feet. They were smooth with oil, but they could crush a man against the steel hull or mangle him on the propeller. It was murder to send a man into that.
Sondra ran across the well deck. Once she slipped, tripped by the litter of gear. She rose, oblivious of the stares of weary
men. Then she was on the poop, standing in front of Tommie and beating him furiously on the chest with her clenched fists.
“You’ve got to listen to me!” she screamed. “You can’t do this! I won’t let you ! Do you hear? I can’t love any man with another man’s blood on his hands!"
She saw Tommie stare at her. Then he turned to the first mate.
“Take care of her, Larsen,” he said.
She felt the mate’s strong hands grip her arms tightly as her knees buckled under her. She felt suddenly weak and dizzy.
“Take it easy,” the mate said soothingly. “He’s got a chance.”
She stared at him.
“Why the skipper, of course. You don’t suppose he’d let anyone else go over, do you? Not that lad.”
Then she was aware that Tommie wasn’t beside her. She twisted in the mate’s grip. Tommie was standing with one leg over the rail. His coat was off and there was a line under him. Four men stood ready to lower him away.
"... and be ready to heave taut on the handy billy after every turn I take and haul me up as soon as I yell. All right, lower away !”
She caught his eye for an instant. There was jast the faintest trace of a smile on his pale lips. Then he was gone.
SONDRA watched the mooring lines made fast as three panting tugs eased the Nomad against her dock. She stared at the skyline of New York on the other shore. Then she turned to Tommie Pollard. He was leaning against the rail beside her, his face dark in contrast to the white of the bandage around his head. His right arm was in a sling. She remembered how limp he had been when they hauled him over the rail. How the pink smear had spread down from his hair over his wet grey face. But the heel of the rudder had been secured. A welling pride filled Sondra. When there was a job to be done or a trust to be fulfilled, here was a man who could do it.
“I meant all that I said—out there,” she said softly.
He looked down at lier. She saw the ache and longing in his eyes that corresponded to the longing she had for him. But he shook his head slowly.
“A cat can look at a queen,” he said slowly, “and a shipmaster can look at Sondra Láveme. But that’s about all there can be to it.”
“That’s what you think,” she said. “And maybe you’re right. But I was born Susie Lee — and that’s another girl entirely.”