Lost Island, part 3

Chapter III (pages 29-41) of Lost Island. If you missed the beginning, here it is.

III

The river was smiling surreptitiously in the bright morning. And there lay the schooner of the evening before, as though she were trying her best to be real, perhaps for Jane’s sake. There was not much doing at the lumber yard across the river, but at least the old watchman had gone. She found an efficient-looking person at last, who was apparently about to start off somewhere in a dirty launch. “That ship?” He waved an expansive arm. “Why, I’m just goin’ out to her. You kin come along, young lady.”

She looked him over again swiftly, and decided that he was harmless, in spite of the noisy alacrity with which he chewed and spat, in spite of the great red and green dragon tattooed all around his arm in spirals, and the swaggering coarseness of the atmosphere he inhabited and carried with him.

“Fine!” she said. “Do you know anything about this ship?”

“Sure. Whaddja want to know about her?”

“Well, what’s her name, who’s her captain, and where’d she come from?”

Annie Marlow, Captain Maynard, Nova Scotia,” recited the other, with a grin. “I can tell you more’n that, too. I’m goin’ out now to get old man Maynard’s order — for provisions, you know — doin’ business even if ’tis Sunday; and I bet I can tell you what he’ll get. Beans, mostly.”

“Have you ever been to sea?” asked Jane.

“Wal, not farer than Coney Island.”

They were making a circle around the stern of the Annie Marlow, her gangway being on her starboard side, and her bow pointing up-river. Jane was feasting now — devouring every line and curve of the trim ship ahead: her slate-gray side, bulwarks and taffrail; her masts, weathered purple-gray; the white crosstrees, and the rigging that led aloft to them, narrowing but straight, through which Jane could imagine the wind singing as through harp-strings, and where she could imagine salt spray freezing in fantastic patterns, like frost feathers on a mountain peak. “I love that ship,” she said. “I don’t think I ever loved anything so much.” As they drew nearer, rigging and masts shifted stealthily, magically.

Annie Marlow ahoy!” sang out the launch skipper. His chest swelled; he felt immensely nautical. “Cap’n Maynard!” He shut off the engine. The sound of a door opening aboard, and someone emerged from the companion and came over to the taffrail. “Ahoy yerself!” he answered.

Jane looked up into a pair of genial blue eyes surmounted by shaggy eyebrows and a shock of steel-gray ruffled hair. The master of the Annie Marlow was rugged and gnarled. His face was weathered as the masts of his schooner. His powerful shoulders were bowed a little. The sea had marked him, in every line and fiber; and there was something about him that was more than dignity. It was the unconscious majesty of the sea.

“Ahoy yerself, Jones!” Even his voice was gnarled, but pleasantly. “Come aboard, come aboard. Glad t’ see ye, glad t’ see ye.”

Jane smiled. “I’m just an ordinary landlubber, Captain Maynard,” she called up, “but I’d love to see your schooner if you’ll let me.”

“Come aboard!”

She climbed the wooden gangway, stepped airily upon the poop deck, and looked around with one enraptured glance. Then she shook hands with the captain. “There are a few real ships left, aren’t there, Captain Maynard?”

“Oh, sure — one or two, one or two.”

They were immense friends. Jane had never before looked into such eyes; in spite of the nests of laughter wrinkles in their corners, they might have caused a typhoon to hold off in hesitation. She waved an empassioned hand around her. “I’ve fallen in love with your ship,” she said.

Now Jones was aboard, and proudly greeting the captain with an irreverent clap on the back. “Wal, what sort of a trip didja have comin’ down, Cap?”

“Oh, one o’ them wet, sloppy, nasty trips, with a dirty roll going,” the captain drawled amiably. He lingered over the words, and Jane could distinctly feel that “dirty roll going.”

The ship was neat and trim from stem to stern. The big wooden wheel was newly varnished, and the binnacle and bell were shining. Jane glanced at the big spanker boom overhead, with the neatly furled sail. The hemp lines, the blocks, even the belaying pins were steeped in romance — a peaceful, unostentatious romance, like that of a pine forest. Things smelled pleasant, too.

Jones was talking again. “And now, Cap’n, about this matter of provisions and all that. Might as well get to business, even if it is Sunday. Beans, I suppose?”

“Beans, nothing! Got so many beans aboard now I don’t need no ballast. Let’s see: how about some eggs?”

Jones jotted on a pad in a business-like manner. “Eggs, eh? About six dozen? Wal, do you want ’em fresh or cold storage?”

“Fresh, you bet! I don’t want none o’ them affairs with chickens in ’em. I buy my chickens separate.” And so they bantered, while Jane looked about the ship only half hearing their voices, making the most of her adventure while it lasted.

Jones was ready to go. “But you’ll be stayin’ aboard, won’t you, Miss Jane?” asked Captain Maynard. “Sure! One o’ the boys’ll pull ye ashore in the skiff tonight. Stay aboard ‘n’ see my li’l old Annie.”

“Is she very old, Captain?”

“Not turrible old, but oldr’n you at that, Miss Jane.”

“And you’ve been in her a long time?”

“No. I just took her over couple o’ years back. Before her I was in a barkentine, the North Star. I tell you I loved that ship. Ten years I had her. Sometimes I see her little white ghost now, risin’ out o’ the sea.”

“Was she lost?”

“Aye, broke up on the Maine coast. ‘Twarn’t I that lost her, though. I was sick ashore that v’yage, and my first mate took her down east. Told me afterwards she was cranky from the start. He didn’t understand her. Ships take a powerful lot of understanding.”

“Perhaps she missed you.”

He nodded wistfully. “I been at sea forty-five year, Miss Jane, and you’d think I’d oughter know the ways of ships, wouldn’t ye now? Well, I’m tellin’ ye, I don’t. But she was a sweet ship.” He spoke with tenderness. “She would do anything but talk, and she tried hard enough to do that.”

Jane was silent, sharing his reverence for the little ship that had tried so hard to talk.

The Annie Marlow, this present and more tangible ship, seemed deserted. “Well,” explained the skipper, “here it is Sunday, and all the boys is off ashore a-larkin’. Sundays they jist skip like rats off a sinkin’ ship.”

“Do rats really leave a ship that’s going to sink, Captain?”

“Well, some say that’s jist an old yarn o’ them stupid sailormen; but I seen things as would s’prise you, Miss Jane. One time I was out in mid-Pacific, and we met up with the Nellie Ross, a bark I knowed. There warn’t no wind, we was both flat becalmed, and Cap’n Walker ‘n’ me wanted t’ compare notes, like, on the longitude. So I pulled over t’ the Nellie. Well, would you believe it, ’bout a score o’ rats off her come back with me — clumb down her side, they did, right into my boat. But the Nellie Ross” — he paused dramatically — “she warn’t never heard of no more. Them Rosses allus was a unlucky tribe, anyways. There was five ships, all same fambly. The Martha Ross was the last and the finest. The Rosses lost their hull blasted fortune in her.”

“Ships are perverse creatures at times, I guess,” said Jane.

“Perverse t’ break your heart, like old women,” said the skipper; “‘n’ then agin just as gentle ‘n’ lovable as young ones.”

He showed her about his schooner. “My, but it’s good to have some livin’ being to talk to, besides Barnacle the cat. Us old sailor-folks gets amighty lonesome at times…. First I want to show you my little flyin’-fish. That’s what I call her to myself.” He walked to the very stern of the ship, where a sizable life-boat hung. Peering down between life-boat and taffrail, Jane could see part of an ordinary small row-boat.

“Don’t look like much, maybe,” the old man chuckled, “but she’s my pride and joy, she is. And she’s a sail-boat, too. In her bottom is a mast and boom I made myself — jist for the fun of it. Sometimes I take her out, all by my lonesome — have a little sail like I used to when I was a kid. And I keep water and biscuits in her, same as in the life-boat.”

They walked forward, and he described each line of the complex rigging, telling her its purpose, the subtle part it played in the total harmony of his schooner. After a while she gave up trying to remember their names, but she never tired of craning her neck to look aloft into the grandeur of the masts. She tried to understand how it came about that at this minute she was so far away from New York — what this magic could be, that had whirled her so powerfully away. This mystery was unfathomable. That made it infinitely tormenting and soul-satisfying, all at once. It was the old eternal romance of the sea and sailing ships, that was all. It had no other name. It could not be torn to pieces and put under the ruthless and scientific microscope.

They had reached the galley up forward. The cook, a small, dark man with a warm smile, was starting up his coal fire. The galley seemed to be the very quintessence of compactness.

An intriguing ladder led up on to the fo’c’sle deck. Jane climbed it, curious to look over the bow. A man was sitting motionless on the schooner’s very shoulder, buried deep in a book and smoking contentedly. A big yellow and gray cat (Barnacle?) lay in his lap, asleep. The man looked up when Jane came to the top of the ladder. “Good morning,” she said, with a friendly nod.

He was a little embarrassed, and laid the open book, face downward, on top of the cat. “Same to you,” he muttered with a shy smile. Then he seemed to remember that his shirt was pretty far open at the neck, and perhaps something had better be done about it. Fumbling for a button, he was secretly chagrined to find it missing. Buttons were intangible things. Defeated, he picked up the book once more, with the air of one resigned to the fact that the world and its buttons were too much for him.

“Have you found something worth reading?” asked Jane, curious.

He held it up, backbone toward her: Conrad’s Lord Jim. She was startled and delighted, and burst into enthusiasm.

He nodded. “Well, Conrad is the only one who ever wrote about the sea and knew what he was saying.”

His voice was graceful and refined. “What a good lot these sailors are!” she thought. Shy, that was all. Needed a little friendliness. “If you wrote about the sea,” she said, “you’d know what you were saying.”

He smiled a little. “I wouldn’t have anything to say. It’s my life,” he explained simply.

“It was Conrad’s life, too,” Jane reminded him. “Well, I’ll leave you in peace.” Obviously, he wanted to be alone.

His eyes were gray. All seafarers had something in their eyes that was honest and peaceful and deep. He had fine shoulders, and his strong brown hands, holding the book, were rough from handling hemp and canvas. Hands made to endure and accomplish the work of the sea. She wanted to say: “You look as if you would last.”

He made an odd contrast to the people whom Jane met every day. It was hard to imagine him on Fifth Avenue, with the slow, rolling stride he doubtless had acquired from pacing many decks. But she had a feeling that he was much more worth while than Fifth Avenue. Why think about Fifth Avenue, anyway? It was only a feeble dream, already dead after these few hours of absence from it. This schooner, these people: here was a dream that would outlast a thousand such futile scurryings.

She looked back at the sailor on the forecastle deck. Doubtless she would never see him again. Look while she could, for he, like Captain Maynard, had the sea’s wisdom in his gray eyes….

“Been yarnin’ with young Davidson?” asked Captain Maynard.

“Not so much yarning,” said Jane. “He’s a very quiet chap.”

“He’s a very good sailor,” said Maynard, “‘n’ ye don’t see so many these days. All the smart young fellers go in for engineerin’ or somethin’, or if they go to sea they head straight for a steamer’s bridge. Davidson’s a reg’lar deep-water man. He’ll be second mate this trip.

The two walked aft again and down into the cabin. “Watch your head!” the skipper sang out in the companionway, and Jane ducked just in time to avoid a shining brass clock. The small chartroom and library, which also served as a living-room, had a pleasant mixed smell of varnish, tar, lumber, and pipe smoke. It was paneled in golden-brown maple. Here and there on the walls were gimbals of well-polished brass, for lamps. The room was lighted during the day by the skylight, under which a compass hung. “See that? Wal, that’s how I keep track of all them absent-minded young greenhorns that steer her. Same’s if I was lookin’ right into the binnacle over their shoulders. Got another o’ them telltales at the head o’ my bed.”

The bookshelves held an odd assortment of pipes, modern fiction, navigation books, and tightly rolled charts. “Well, you’re fixed up here in great style, captain.” He chose a pipe from the shelf, and carefully packed it. Then, settled down in a leather armchair, he answered her:

“Oh, ’tain’t so bad, but a’mighty lonely at times. This goin’ t’ sea” — he shook his head sagely — “ain’t nothin’ in it. What would you be a-thinkin’, now, Miss Jane, with tons o’ green sea a-smashin’ down into this cabin, and you achin’ for a wink o’ sleep, but couldn’t stay in your bunk? Can’t have flyin’-fish weather all the time,” he added.

“Well,” Jane put in, “people don’t have to go to sea.”

He chuckled. “You wouldn’t think they would,” he agreed. “We sailors are a stupid lot. Everybody says so, ‘n’ I guess it’s so. Y’know, many’s the time I been workin’ ashore, ‘n’ bound I’d stay there. Why, one time I went out to a ranch in Montana — thought I’d git off from the wharves, the sight ‘n’ smell o’ the shipping — fur away’s I could git.” He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head again. “Well, the joke was on me. Less’n a year, and I was headin’ for ‘Frisco fast as I could go.”

“You wouldn’t make a good cow-puncher,” said Jane. “Anyway, it seems to me that whatever you’re doing, there’s always a lot of discontentment thrown in. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be any adventures, would there? Captain Maynard, do you know that just coming aboard this schooner today, and talking with you, is the grandest adventure I’ve ever had?”

He smiled, delighted but a trifle bewildered, and still in serious mood. “Y’know, it’s almighty queer, this business o’ stickin’ to the sea. They jist can’t git away from it. They hate it ‘n’ cuss it and ‘d give a lot to set up a barber shop or run a chicken-farm or somethin’, but leave it they can’t. Or if they do, back they come in a little while. Get in their blood for good’n all, I reckon. Well, it’s all right fer an old feller like me. I got my ship, and I’m a bit of a philosophy, if you know what I mean. I’m contented enough now. Got over all the rearin’ and cussin’. But take a young chap like that Davidson, or lots of others, they hadn’t oughter be here a-reefin’ sails. They’d oughter by tryin’ fer a steamer job if they’re bound to go to sea. Because, Miss Jane, there ain’t no more ships to speak of, now.” He spoke with deep wistfulness.

“Have you ever been in a steamship, Captain Maynard?”

“No, I ain’t never been in one; I don’t reckon I will, neither. I got my ship, and I ain’t a-goin’ to live such a whale of a lot longer, so I’m all fixed. But a young feller’s different. I reckon as he’d oughter get an eddication, ye know. ‘Cause ye can’t git nowhere without it, these days. Men ain’t what they used to be. No wonder — ain’t nothin’ fer ’em to do. Sailors ain’t what they used to be. Well, I’m askin’ ye, is that any wonder? But there — things change, that’s all. Nobody can’t say if it’s worse or better. But I mind me o’ the old deep-sea ships at times, and wish they was back in style. That was a rotten hard life, Miss Jane — nothin’ at all to be said fer it, ye wouldn’t think — but there was somethin’ about it — I dunno.” He pointed over to the cabin wall, at the picture of a full-rigger tearing before a hammering sea. “See her? Lovely, ain’t she? Well, she was my first command, Jane, more’n twenty year ago — my first command.”

Jane sighed. “I never before wished so much I were a man,” she said. “Yes, I’d go to sea tomorrow.”

And then a bell rang from the messroom. “Come have a bite of lunch,” said the captain. “Then I reckon we’ll both be better off for deciding what’s wrong wi’ the old universe.” The messroom was small and cheerful, the table spread with a red-checked cloth, and the usual bright array of little bottles and shakers in one corner. “Ain’t nobody aboard but us,” said the skipper. “Mate gone off on some ‘social function’ or other; that’s what he calls ’em. Second mate paid off last night.”

The cook waited on the two of them efficiently and smilingly, if not gracefully. It was regal. “How’s that pepper-sass comin’ along, steward?” the skipper enquired.

“Well, sir, I shook it up good an’ plenty. Oughter have some spice to it.”

“That’s jest about the most — most unexpressive pepper-sass I ever did see,” the captain observed, shaking it vigorously over a plate of beans. “An’ I been goin’ t’ sea for forty-five year.”

“You said fifty-five, last time.” The voice came from behind Jane. She started, and turned her head. A stout man with  scant gray hair, a large cold grin, and blue cold eyes, was standing in the doorway.

“Hello! There’s my mate,” said Captain Maynard. “Back from your social functions, eh, Stevens?”

“Don’t you see I am?” said Stevens, with the same inscrutable grin.

The captain ignored the retort. “This young lady,” he explained, “come aboard this morning to see my li’l old Annie. She thinks Annie‘s about the best ship she ever saw.”

“I guess she hasn’t seen many, then,” said Stevens, grinning still more broadly. Jane began to understand him now. The purpose of the grin was to allow him to say ironical things and get by with them by making them appear genial. A clever dodge. He was doubtless the sort of taciturn person who liked to make every word do double or triple duty. He would have that cruel knack of demolishing an argument, distorting the whole point of a story, by a few well-directed words. Yet he would do it with a smile, and there would be no satisfactory retort.

“Don’t you like the ship yourself?” she ventured.

He thought a moment. This was a delicate question — mustn’t commit himself in any direction. “Well, yes — and — no,” he said slowly, with pauses between the words. Then he withdrew his immense frame out of the doorway, and Jane and Captain Maynard exchanged a smile.

After lunch, they went on deck again. Jane was too happy. It was dangerous. It was more than happiness. It was wild and feverish. She felt that she could not hold her own heart any longer. It had become too light. There was golden mist around her, and she could not feel the deck under her feet.

Captain Maynard was glancing aloft. “Well, Miss Jane,” he said, “s’posin’ I was to tell you to run up there — to loose them topsails, maybe; think you could do it?”

The challenge, unconscious on his part, came at the nick of time. To Jane, already walking on high clouds, the ratlines and shrouds of the schooner’s rigging looked very solid. “Sure I could!” she sang out, and was over the bulwarks with two long strides.

“Hey! I didn’t mean that!” he called, startled.

She waited tremulously, one hand on the shrouds. Her neatly arranged brown hair was loosening in the wind. “Can’t I, Captain?” she pleaded.

“Well, go ahead, go ahead. But hold hard and watch yourself.”

She looked upward, and saw the clouds rolling past over the tops of the four tall masts. It gave a curious illusion of speed, as if the ship herself were rushing on against the wind. The tense wire shrouds thrilled in her hands. Ratline after ratline she climbed into the wind, with the sensation of entering the upper reaches of a cloud-swept hall of sky. She kept her eyes upward, and saw the trucks of the masts coming closer; but once she looked off to the east, and caught a fragmentary glimpse of New York pinnacles and turrets. She was climbing out where they could not reach her. She did not even stop to draw breath until she had pulled herself on to those white slender crosstrees, that had looked from below so insignificant and perilous. She trembled with excitement; her heart was pounding. She closed her eyes, to shut out that swift illusion the clouds gave. Dizzying even to think about it. The stalwart base of the topmast was a welcome friend, after a trip up a ladder through far reaches of space. She put both arms around it, and leaned her cheek against the weathered varnish, and held tight, while a great river of wind fell past her.

When she found breath again, she looked into the sky through a crowd of lines, and saw gulls veering and calling. She waved to them. She was on equal terms with them now, and their white wings. Perspective had altered weirdly. It was hard to believe that the toy hull she looked down upon could support these colossal masts. The cook, standing outside the galley with his apron on, craning his neck to look approvingly upwards, was an absurd little figure. She waved to him, laughing.

When she came down, she was nearly blind with excitement. “Well, well, you are a sailor for sure,” said Captain Maynard.

She had hoped he would say just that. But she could not speak. Every fiber of her body still vibrated to the speed of the clouds, the supreme beauty of that schooner’s rigging. “I love this ship — I love her,” was all she could find to say.

The old man understood that. “To tell you the plain truth, I do myself,” he said. “If I go away from her, jest for a day or two, I begin to feel homesick right away.” He chuckled. “Want to go down and wash?” he asked, glancing at her coal-black hands. They strolled toward the companionway. “How would you like to be up aloft there with a Cape Horn gale for comp’ny, ‘stead o’ them little gulls, when the wind was like a wild demon to shake you off? Sails splittin’ like thunderbolts, sleet and hail peltin’ you like lumps o’ broken glass, and the whole sea black-green?” They were settled once more in the cabin. “Yes, the sea’s a cruel ol’ mistress, sometimes, Jane. But — git out in the South Pacific trades, with them little flyin’-fish a-flitterin’, an’ the sun on their little wings; or take it at night, moon on the sails, an’ everything so quiet an’ peaceful like, seems like you kin hear the ol’ earth a-spinnin’ — seems like you could see God.”

“Oh, Captain, there’s nothing in the world I want so much!” Jane exclaimed. “If only I could sail with you! I’d give up all the rest of my life, and die happy!”

The wire shrouds vibrated in her hands, the clouds tore past, New York was a lost inferno, staring upwards at its escaping prey. White friendly wings brushed by. She was excited and stirred beyond endurance. He looked in astonishment at the great fire of longing in her eyes, and wondered at the strain of desperation in her young voice. “Why, bless your heart,” he said slowly. “I’d no idea, Miss Jane! Why, come along, to be sure! Glad to have ye go along with me!”

She leaped to her feet, like a wild bird breaking into flight. “You don’t — really — mean it, Captain Maynard!” She was challenging him.

“Why, to be sure I mean it,” he said gently. “To be sure I do!”

Chapter IV…

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