Lost Island, part 5

Chapter V (pp. 54-66) of Lost Island. Chapter I is here.

The Annie Marlow glided ahead evenly, obedient to the small snorting tug that was taking her down-river. Gulls veered around her, as if they were glad she was outward bound. They would escort her gracefully down to the open sea. The wake glimmered with their wings, flashing gray and white, beating strongly and softly, in a shifting, weaving crowd. Their yellow beaks glinted now and then, and their cries surrounded the ship. She herself was light-footed as she walked on the waves of the broad Hudson, as she swung down between the wharves and immense bright liners on either side of her. She was quite willing to follow the tug wherever it might be taking her, but, in spite of her patience, she was only waiting to show her own free strength, when they would give her sail and she would forge lightly ahead alone.

“It’s a sweet day,” said Captain Maynard, surveying the vault of sky like one who knew its whims and weaknesses. “And there’d ought to be a fair breeze once we get outside, Mr. Stevens.”

The mate nodded. He was pacing the poop deck slowly, keeping an eye on the tug ahead. “You can’t tell, though. It’s likely enough to baffle all round the compass and then leave you flat becalmed. Or, it might last for days.” He never committed himself with the breezes. His own personal opinion was doubtless quite definite, but he would never divulge it. No one should claim that he was wrong in his judgment of a piece of weather.

Jane stood in a corner of the deck with her hair blowing. She saw that the sky was blue and white and windswept, and the sun gleamed upon gaudy smokestacks of big passenger ships. The gulls feathered back and forth astern, a soft cloud of wings. Beauty — that was what the whole world was starving for, and she had found it…. She closed her eyes in rapture, and the young wind played with her hair.

The river broadened out. Mammoth turrets and pinnacles arose tumultuously astern, the skyline of the city. Jane had seen that skyline before, and she knew its grandeur. But she gave the receding city only a couple of swift glances — glances in which there was a touch of fear that the roaring monster might snatch her back before escape was complete.

Captain Maynard, eyeing the wind, called out through a megaphone to the stalwart tug ahead. Jane heard the answer come back faintly: “All right!” And then, the skipper’s voice again: “Start your engine, Mr. Davidson! Mains’l up, boys!”

There was a rumbling up forward, and the whole schooner began to tremble as if she were profoundly excited, as if her heart were pulsing. There were creaks and rattles, sounds of wood and hemp and canvas. The schooner was shaking herself hard. And the mainsail, like an immense white wing, lifted before Jane’s eyes — crept up the mast one hoop after another. It rippled and billowed like grass on a windy mountain top. Straining and aspiring, it came to rest at last, and as the sailors close-hauled, it filled with wind and curved outward, lifting. The schooner stepped faster, and the tow-rope slackened ahead now and then.

To Jane this setting of the Annie Marlow‘s mainsail meant far more than the beginning of this particular voyage. She knew that nothing would ever be quite the same again, after she had stood on deck and watched great sails rise over her, and felt the tremulous shaking of the ship, impatient to be off into the waiting sea. She would be living in a dream after this, and her steps along New York pavements would be light as falling snow. She would move in a world of shapes and silences, things done automatically without thought. There would be strange little Miss Perry who believed in dreams; and Professor Myers, calm and fatherly, searching for his glasses. Bob and Ellen would doubtless quarrel again. She would glide among them, helpfully and not unhappily, and listen to voices of seagulls, and feel a schooner tremble beneath rising, yearning wings.

As the foresail, mizzen, and jibs followed the mainsail, finally the spanker, and the topsails, four small peaks aloft, the Annie gathered way and forged ahead with a louder chuckling and knocking of waters beneath her breast.  She swung along almost airily, leaning a little on her side, every sail drawing well, jibboom pointing arrow-like into an eternity of sea. The tow-rope was very slack now. Much to the captain’s delight, his schooner was gaining on the squat black tug ahead; gaining on her, surging up alongside her, with ivory castles at her bow.

“We’ll manage now!” the captain shouted.

The line was let go. “O. K., Maynard!” The tugmaster leaned out of his small wheelhouse, spat genially, and signaled to his engine-room. “Good luck!” he sang out. The Celia became a receding black blot astern; the schooner, tall and slender and bird-like, settled down alone to the long sapphire trail under the noonday sun.

Jane felt an irresistible sleepiness. She was completely at home here. There was serenity in the swinging gait of the schooner, the sounds from her hull as she rolled a little to the incoming swell. She tossed up her bowsprit, and stepped gaily ahead, with now and then a whiff of spray that was white and ethereal and part of the whole dream. Jane sat down on the saddle of the spanker boom, and planted her back against the mast. It was something substantial and trustworthy to rest upon.

It had been a long, hard week for her. Swamped with the immensity of her secret, throbbing with its excitement, and always dogged by vague fear that something might still prevent her embarking — with all this, which was in itself as much as she wanted to bear, she had to keep pounding away at the office grind, unslackening. She had to finish up odds and ends of work. There were questions to be intelligently answered. She had to help Mary get started. Mary’s job with Bob’s father had not materialized after all, so she was taking Jane’s place with Professor Myers. Jane found it unimaginably hard to be serene and polite to everyone, about multitudinous details which she secretly scorned. She was conscious of a desire to say: “Shut up! I’m thinking,” and one day she had narrowly escaped saying to Professor Myers: “Oh, darn your old glasses!” But she had carried through without  a single serious slip, and the strain had been overwhelming.

Leaning against the mast, she closed her eyes, and still saw only a restless shimmering horde of seagull wings. Her entire world was ceaselessly in motion — swells; horizon, which waved up and down like a blue flag; the schooner herself; the sun-trail on the water. The world had become a gigantic cradle. The wind was singing. And before very long the Annie Marlow had rocked Jane off to sleep, free of the pavements, free of money and perspiration, like the ascending taut lines themselves.

The captain found her there when he went down to lunch, and said to his cook: “Steward, I reckon as Miss Jane won’t be comin’.” The steward smiled knowingly, and his smile plainly said: “Something’s up ‘tween her ‘n’ the fishes, eh?” But, being a tactful steward, he said nothing.

Jane awoke with a little start, not knowing just where she was. The schooner’s great mast was behind her, and she felt an increased swaying, for the land was out of sight now, every last vestige of it. The sun blazed low in the west, a great smoky orange globe behind a film of cloud; and the sea shone translucent silver-blue, traced with darker shadows and lighter streams. The breeze was not so fresh, but the sails were still curved and steady. The sound of water at the ship’s bow had changed to a faint murmur. Jane felt alone in the very center of the universe, which was nothing but sea.

Then a single disturbing though occurred to her. She had not the faintest idea where the Annie Marlow was bound. She had simply forgotten to ask, that was all. At times during the week it came upon her forcibly that she must find out at once, but that week had been frantically busy. She had been to the schooner once, in the evening, to find out for sure when they were sailing. Everyone had seemed busy, and she had put off asking the question. There was too much else to think about. She was surprised at herself, and very much amused. It was all part of the adventure, dream-like and unearthly. The ship might be sailing off the edge of the map; quite likely that was it.

Mr. Stevens, the portly first mate, strode the deck with heavy tread and stern gaze. He was in command, now. He kept his eye on the sea and the sails and the nonchalant helmsman, all at once. Nothing could escape him, by Jove! Like many short men — he was an inch or so shorter than Jane — he made the very most of what height he had by standing stiffly erect. His broad shoulders and pompous waist gave him a squat, square appearance, like a cider-jug.

Somehow, thought Jane, he didn’t look like a person of whom she could ask her question. “Mr. Stevens, will you kindly tell me where the ship is going?” It wouldn’t do. You could twist the words around a hundred ways, but you could not make them sound sane. Some time she would have a look at the logbook, if she could discover where it was kept. Maybe after a while she would hear someone mention in the natural course of conversation where they were going. But, after all, for now it didn’t matter very much. They were outward bound — enough for one day.

“Good evening, Mate,” Jane greeted him airily.

But his dignity was not to be trifled with. He drew himself up portentously, and looked at her with his cold eyes. “My name is Stevens,” he announced.

Jane considered an impertinent retort, but thought better of it. She climbed down on to the main deck, and strolled its length once or twice, looking up into the sails. They were arched and vaulted, and silent. They seemed to form part of some immense domed castle ceiling. In this silver-blue light that came just before sunset, they were purged of wear and tear and smudginess, and gleamed smoothly white. The ship was so still, except for the long slow swaying, that she seemed hardly to move at all.

Jane climbed the main rigging, on the windward side of the ship. The shrouds vibrated a little, from the straining of sails at the masts. They were living and tense. She climbed toward the sky on a gray mesh, and the marble slopes of the sails were her companions. As she climbed, the horizon broadened out a little, but it was all alike. The sea was almost imperceptibly heaving. You could not see where undulations began and ended, but they were there, because the schooner recognized them. Sometimes a suspicion of a silver ridge, scarcely more than a shadow, glided across — no more.

Even mountains, even woodland rivers, pine forests and moss and ferns, had never held for her such peace as this of the sea. It would rock to sleep all ambition, desire, grief, leaving only a great serenity, and a purpose of things. The ship, steering for one tiny but determined point in the quivering circle of the compass card; the great aloneness; the colossal importance, or the microscopic unimportance of her — these things twined themselves with a subtle possessing rhythm, into Jane’s heart. And she desired no more than this tremendous symphony of sound and feeling.

Clinging to the topmast, she sat on the crosstrees, and swung her feet almost jauntily over eighty feet of space. She looked down through graceful sweeps of sail, and up to the peaked topsails. The sun had slipped into the sea without so much as a single hiss, and the world was unbelievably still. A smear of color began to glow over the west, and there were limpid pools of blue-green in the sky, with cloud shapes between, and small rose feathers trailing languidly across the zenith.

No telephones here, or jazz bands, doorbells, phonographs, alarm-clocks, typewriter clickings, or the roar of subways and the “L.” It all had been cut clean out of the picture. Jane cried a little. It was too completely what she had longed for, and it had come before she was ready to believe in its reality. You couldn’t bear a piece of beauty like this. Beauty…. Now that she was away from the manicure parlors and hair-dressing shops, that word did not seem so pitiful. It was adequate, now. It was God. The topmast, warm from the afternoon sun, felt alive in the crook of her elbow. It was companionable and strong. Her shoulders trembled, and a few more tears fell through the height, to land in the lap of a sail.

In a way this escapade was the direct sequel of another. Vaguely she wondered, there on a level with the ship’s long gaffs, if Charlie ever thought of her any more. She had neither seen or heard of him since her wild dash from the church more than three years ago. Most likely his delicate sense of propriety had been profoundly shocked. Most likely he would be shocked all over again if he could know that she was at this moment sitting on the main crosstrees of a schooner whose destination she had had no proper chance to ask about. And she smiled to herself at that thought.

There was another person to be thanked for this adventure — Andrew, the old Scotch gardener, the one mortal in Jane’s home town who had sympathized with that frantic dash of hers. He was a quaint character, half of whose words she usually failed to understand, though she knew they were friendly. It was to his cottage that she had run from the church, two miles away, across fields. She had kicked off her white slippers and run barefoot, leaping fences and brooks, tearing through fringes of brush, holding off the ground her white dress with its lace so carefully stitched by one of Charlie’s innumerable aunts. During that run she had been conscious of almost hysterical happiness and relief, which refused to be dispelled by thoughts of uncomfortable consequences.

She reached Andrew’s place streaming with sweat and out of breath. At first she had not been able to find the old man; but his pet duck, Heather, was waddling across the back yard, with its perpetual ridiculous expression of good nature. “Andrew!” she called, in desperation.

And then his youngest son appeared, John, a lad of about Jane’s age, who had been her friend and playmate for years. He gazed at her wedding dress, and smiled slowly, approvingly.

“Well, I couldn’t do it, Johnny…. I just spread my wings — came sailing over fences…”

“I wish I could ha’ seen ye. Ye always did run grand, Jane.”

“Where’s your father? I want to talk it over with him.”

John said, with many r’s, that his father was somewhere about, but he didna ken just where. And then he glanced around the yard, and caught sight of Heather. “Why doon’t ye pin a note on the duck, Janie? If Heather’s aroond, Andra’s no far awa’.”

In his Ford truck, old Andrew drove her to Portland, where one of his married daughters lived. He demanded no explanation, and asked only one question — whether she had bolted just after the ceremony or just before it.

“It was a close squeak,” Jane had answered gravely; and Jane on the crosstrees of the schooner trembled.

He told her she was a “verra wise lass.”

“How so, Andrew?”

“Aweel, Jane, if tae rin awa’ was hoo ye lo’ed Charlie, ye sairtainly couldna be cantie wi’ him.”

She would never forget this simple approval. How much she had needed it! His daughter, too, had been unbelievably kind, lending her a little money with which to start her proposed fortune-hunting in New York, understanding her silence, asking no questions. She wrote to Andrew a good deal, asking how Heather was and how John was, thanking him for all he had done for her, and giving the latest news from New York. To these letters he replied that Heather was well and John was well, and he wasna much of a hand at writing, and they all wished her luck. Also, he usually said that he had pleaded with her father as well as he knew how, and hoped he would soon come around and act human about Jane’s escapade, but that right now he was determined to have nothing to do with his scapegrace daughter, ever again.

So Andrew had played his part in Jane’s sailing for unknown places in the Annie Marlow; and she thanked him again from the crosstrees and the sails and the great peace of the sea….

The bell for supper jangled loudly from below, crashing into the calm. Jane twisted herself and peered downward, and caught a glimpse of the cook on his way aft, carrying his big “dog-basket.” An aroma floated up, perhaps imaginary but very tantalizing, of baked ham, mingled with other undefinable scents. Carefully she lowered herself between the white arms of the crosstrees — a perilous moment, with the world gracefully swaying, before her feet rested on the ratlines again. Then down slowly on the stairway of the rigging, between tall sweeps and curves of sail.

Captain Maynard and Mr. Stevens were already at the table. “Feeling a little — ?” the captain began. But he stopped short, for obviously she wasn’t. “Well, well! You look as though you were enjoying yourself, Jane. Thought you might be turnin’ toes up afore now, maybe.”

“Oh, no! You see, there’s too precious little time for me to be wasting any of it.”

“Little, eh?” he retorted. “What d’you think o’ that, Stevens? She calls a two months’ v’yage little!”

(Two months!)

“Huh!” Stevens commented, “she’ll think different before it’s over.”

“Not that it’d amount to so much afore them new-fangled steamboats ‘n’ sich got to swallerin’ the sea ‘n’ changin’ everyone’s notions,” the captain resumed. “In the old days we’d think nothin’ o’ seventy ‘n’ eighty days.” He interrupted himself to pour pepper-sauce generously into his soup, all the time shaking his head at the little bottle as if to say: “My, my, how can you be so unexpressive! Why, even pepper-sass ain’t what it used to be.”

There were no stars when Jane went on deck. The night was close and thick, and rounded sails leaned mouse-gray out of it. The only light was the coppery gleam from the binnacle lamp, which now and then touched the brown varnish of the big wheel, or sent up a ray to illuminate for an instant the helmsman’s youthful face. The man whistled softly from the midst of a pool of mingled flickerings and shadows.

At first Jane thought he was alone there. When her eyes became used to the dark she thought she discerned another figure in the stern on the windward side; but if it was a man he was so motionless that he might have been cut in ebony. He leaned against the taffrail at ease, looking out ahead — jet-black against a sky of deep, deep gray.

He gave her a sense of absolute tranquillity. It was as though he had become part of the ship, like one of her masts, or the great curve of sail that faded aloft in the night. Perhaps he was holding subtle communion with the sea. There was strength about him, too. Not a dashing, valiant strength, but the quiet power of some splendid pine tree in a New England forest. He belonged completely to the sea and to the night; he was one with their aloofness and long silences.

It occurred to Jane that he was the only person aboard whom she could ask where the Annie Marlow was bound. She had considered Captain Maynard, but some intuition restrained her. He was more aloof and solemn now they were at sea. The colossal burden of guiding the schooner by infinitesimal compass points through an eternity of waves, had deepened and changed him. But the young man by the taffrail would understand. In the same moment she realized why he looked familiar to her. He was Davidson, the new second mate, whom she had found reading Conrad on the fo’c’sle deck the first time she had come aboard.

They said good evening gravely. “Have you finished Lord Jim yet?” Jane asked.

He nodded shyly. Jane was exploring the very innermost corner of his world, a corner which he had never mentioned to anyone. You couldn’t, and be at the same time a sailor and one of your mates. Jane, of course, was not one of his mates. He could talk to her about Conrad and books. Yet he was not at ease, because he felt shy with her, instinctively afraid to infringe on alien worlds.

He admitted that for a long time he had known Lord Jim almost by heart.

“I suppose,” said Jane, “you would rather read it six times over than read six other books.”

A little surprised and vaguely pleased that she understood so well, he nodded once more. Jane tried to put him at ease. “You have to pick your books, though,” she said.

“Oh, you pick them over just as you cull apples. But Conrad is safe, you know.”

“A lot of people can’t make head or tail of Conrad, and don’t want to try.”

“Well, a lot of people can’t abide prairies, and a lot more say that too many trees clutter up the sky.”

“And some,” Jane echoed, “don’t even like to look at the sea, while others are utterly unable to stay ashore.”

He returned her quick smile. He wasn’t afraid of her any more. “How did you find that out?”

“Your captain told me. But I think I knew it anyway. Has it got you, Mr. Davidson?”

He admitted, after a small silence, that he was “in pretty deep.”

“Another thing your captain and I talked about,” said Jane, “was the merits of sailing ships and steamers. ‘I wish the old clippers was back in style,’ was how he put it. Of course he admitted it was a rotten hard life, but there was ‘somethin’ about it’ — he didn’t know quite what, but there it was. It’s positively uncanny, Mr. Davidson, the way you sailors feel about the sea.”

“Well — ” They talked it all over. But it left Jane as mystified as before. There seemed no answer at all, no consistency. It was a strange vicious circle of conflicting emotions that could not be broken or changed. Davidson was a true deep-water man, thought Jane. The true ones always got muddled when they tried to explain.

The breeze was just barely enough to fill the sails. “Are we going to get becalmed?” Jane asked.

He said he was afraid so; yes, it looked it, all right.

“What happens then?”

“Well, everything stops, except that the ship begins to tear herself to pieces. I don’t like that, myself. Hurts.”

“One gets to think of a ship as a living thing, I guess,” said Jane.

He smiled and said he guessed that was true; anyway, you got mighty fond of a ship.

“Captain Maynard talks about his ships as though they were his children,” said Jane. “It struck me as quaint at first. But now I really believe the Annie Marlow is alive.”

They fell silent for a little while. That bothersome question Jane wanted to ask had been forgotten once more. She had again let it slip into oblivion, because she did not care. The ship herself, and the slumbering sea, were the facts that counted.

“I think the Annie Marlow is alive,” she murmured again.

The mainsail, until now steady as though carved in ivory, drew a deep breath and sighed; and the schooner swung gently as a cradle over the domes of polished jet that slipped beneath her.

Chapter 6…

Speak Your Mind

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