The Cruise of the Quinze Mille Vierges
As I look back over the years I have been married, one of the most definite things in the harbor of my memory is a little fleet of boats. These are the boats which have belonged to us. They are not an imposing lot, nor are there very many of them. Most people would see only a collection of little sloops and jib-and-mainsail boats, all indifferently smart, and some of them old, tubby affairs which, for all the paint and new cordage which we put on them, could make no pretense to smartness at all. You would not find among them all a boat of a new model, or even a brand-new suit of sails. But I can see in this brood of ugly ducklings all sorts of perfections. There is not one of them all that was not ready and willing and faithful; not one of them that played us an ugly trick; nor was there one on which I had not spent hours of loving care, trying to give her a semblance of smartness even in her old age.
There is in my mind another shadowy fleet of boats: the boats we coveted and imagined ourselves buying. They make a large, imposing fleet, their lines are perfect, and their well-fitting sails spotless. Among them are schooners, and forty-foot yawls — and even steam yachts; but I doubt if I at least should have loved one of them as much as the boats we have actually owned, and upon which Stan and I have spent so many hours of well-meant and bungling labor.
There is a third fleet of boats that I sometimes wonder over: it is the fleet of our narrow escapes, and it is composed of boats we came near buying. Some are boats far beyond our means, handsome creatures which all but lured us from the paths of virtuous moderation; though most of them are jovial, disreputable old craft, which beckoned to Stan and me with crazy masts, crying to us that we were boatless and that they were to be bought cheap. I have adventurous moments when I wish I knew what would have happened had our hands not been stayed by some lingering bit of New England common sense. Should we all have been drowned by now, I wonder, if we had bought the Je l’Aimais ? or should we have had a beautiful time and all sorts of picturesque adventures sailing down the Mediterranean coast?
At the time, I did n’t at all want to buy her, and I’m rather proud of the way I acted in the matter; that is why I tell this story. No woman ever thoroughly learns the lesson of not plucking at the sleeve of Fate and begging it to turn this way and that way; and so when, for once, one of us sits as impassive under trial as Fate itself, no wonder we remember it; no wonder we like to record it.
To make it come home to you more vividly, I must ask you to imagine yourself traveling in Europe, — traveling with a nurse and baby, — and then fancy your husband seriously considering the possible purchase of a menagerie of decrepit and unsalable animals, or an inaccessible and ruined house; and then, if you managed to hold your tongue and let nature take its course, see if you would n’t feel proud of the depth of your self-control.
As a yachtsman’s wife, I have been guilty of lubberly acts enough, and so, when I do anything tactful and wise, it gives me pleasure to recall it.
I stood at my window, which overlooked the beach of Saint Raphael, and as I watched the pleasant, bustling scene, I observed, dressed in a sweater and a tam-o-shanter, an ignoble pair of old trousers on his legs, my husband, — not different, so far as my impartial eye could see, either in manner or costume, from any other of the loafers on the beach: the only thing that marked him a foreigner was that they gesticulated vociferously, while he did not.
He was the centre of a small group of fishermen, who were evidently trying to prove something to him, for they pointed frequently to a boat near which they stood. It needed no second sight to tell me what was afoot.
“Aha!” thought I, “they’re trying to sell that prehistoric relic to Stan — and they will!”
I hastily put on my hat and joined my husband, although I knew well enough that my presence could have no restraining influence on him once he was in the grip of his master passion. Unfortunately, women have a desire mortal to their own comfort and peace of mind, — they want to know the worst. I arrived in time to see Stan looking over a boat with a critical eye. He is a very good judge of boats when he is n’t buying one, but Stan in a boatless condition would be quite capable of buying a bird’s nest to sail in.
In a sober mood, I think he would have considered a good, stout bird’s nest more seaworthy than the venerable craft that was under consideration. I have n’t been a yachtsman’s wife so many years for nothing, and I knew that Stan was indulging in no academic pastime in dickering over a boat; I knew that he seriously considered buying that aged craft, with its rotten planks and all. I shall always feel that I deserved praise for not asking him the simple question, “ with what ” he proposed to buy that museum relic from the shores of the Mediterranean; or that I did n’t point out to him that our stay in Saint Raphael was to be of but three weeks’ duration; instead, I am proud to say that for once I held my tongue, and even looked as enthusiastic as human nature could be expected to.
The Je l’Aimais was, so far as my small historical knowledge goes, a bastard model of those vessels with which Cæsar explored this same coast some two thousand years before. She was about thirty feet long, and heavy, without centreboard or keel. Her short and slender mast was out of all proportion to her heavy lines. Like the other fishing boats, she had a lateen sail, which means that on the mast was casually fixed a hook; and by means of this hook and a ring the sail was naïvely fastened.
The boat showed signs of long disuse. Any one could see at a glance that, even among other boats of her type, she was peculiarly unseaworthy, for she wore the unmistakably discouraged air of a boat which has searched for years in vain for a new owner. Boats that have no loving owner have always seemed to me like dogs in the same plight. Lack of care, the absence of fresh paint, gives them the same lonely and dejected look that one observes in a lost dog. It takes no experienced eye to tell if a boat has passed from the hands of a careful proprietor, who has been proud of her, or has “lain up,” neglected, for season after season. The Je l’Aimais was of the latter type.
According, however, to the florid gentleman in the worn red tam-o-shanter, the Je l’Aimais was a pearl among pearls, a boat of boats, a real bargain. Yes, she had lain up, it is true, a season or two, it may be three or four — it may be five or six; but only because her owner lived down Antibes way. Just why he had n’t had her put in the water and sailed down to Antibes was patent even to the dull eye of a female, for this venerable Noah’s ark was only one step from the time when a boat is broken up for her iron and such of her fittings as may yet prove serviceable for another season on a more fortunate craft.
She had one virtue, however. She could be bought very cheap; to that every one agreed with wise nods and headshakings.
Stan looked her over with an air of criticism which I don’t believe deceived any of the honest fishermen surrounding him. That he was an “Englishman” proved to their simple minds that he was mad to start with; that he had considered this boat at all must have proved to them that he was only recently escaped from his keeper. There was a certain eagerness in the air of the elderly rascal most interested in the sale, which seemed to indicate that he feared the keeper might at any moment appear upon the scene.
How mad we were Stan was to prove by what he was next to say. They had fished all their lives in small boats, as we had sailed in them, and yet we had not one word of boat talk in common. We were of the present day, and the models of their boats dated from the Cæsars. The models of fishing boats do not change and improve along the Mediterranean shore. The boatbuilder of two hundred years ago could come back and successfully ply his trade and use the same models that his fathers had taught him.
“That boat would be better for an iron shoe,” said Stan, with a recrudescence of the boat-trader’s instinct.
“Not at all! Not at all, M’ssieu’,” replied the elderly fisherman, an uneasy eve fixed on me. I fancied that he might have at home a seaworthy wife who sometimes prevented him from buying things which he should not.
“ Iron on the keel of a boat causes her to sink. A bit of bad weather, a Mistral comes up, the waves come up, your sail pitches off — pouff!” — he illustrated this with a dramatic gesture — “down you go at the same moment — the iron inevitably drags you to the bottom. Then — finish.”
“I don’t see,” said Stan, “why you have no centreboards.”
They looked at each other blankly. Stan’s French, at the best, is not yet idiomatic, and he translated the word “centreboard” literally. He took from his pocket a piece of paper and drew a picture of a boat with a centreboard. He made a boat of his hands, and with a chip of wood showed the attentive crowd the working of this useful apparatus.
“ Ah-h-h! ” they breathed. They understood.
“M’ssieu’, those boats of that cast are the type of the most dangerous,” they explained, “unsuited entirely for our rough waters. There has never yet been a fishing boat here with a centreboard — nor will there be, thank God, while our boatbuilders have any sense left. Safe boats are of the model that you see before you, the model of the Je 1’Aimais.”
“I don’t see how your boats come about, without a centreboard,” Stan persisted.
With the tact of Frenchmen, they ignored this question. It may be that they did not think it was important whether a boat came about quickly or not, never having sailed in the kind that did.
“There came to this harbor,” said one of the other fishermen, “an Englishman in a boat such as you describe, M’ssieu’. He went out one day, the Mistral came up; he was never seen again.”
“The centreboard,” added another stout sailor, “may be good for other waters — not for these.”
“We have always sailed in such boats,”a bent-over grandfather clinched the argument.
There fell on us one of those sudden and unaccountable silences that come over people in the midst of busy talk. Far off we could hear a merry-go-round playing. The cheerful noises of the beach rose about us, calling us like the voice of a friend. The Je l’Aimais and Stan looked each other in the face while she sung to him her false siren chant.
“ I can be bought cheap — cheap — cheap,” I could hear her telling him. “I am old and dried up, but I am a boat. I can be your own boat. You can go in me where you like. You can see every little nook of this lovely coast. I can be bought for nothing, for nothing at all.” And of all songs in the world, this song without music is the one which can lure Stan farthest afield. I do not mind a real boat making him commit follies for her sake, but it hardened my heart to think of the decrepit Je l’Aimais putting the comether on my husband.
“Why did n’t you all go out to-day?” he asked suddenly. I like to think that a suspicion of what the Je l’Aimais and her kind really were came over him. It was a beautiful day, the sun bright above, and no hint of coming storm; a little Mistral blowing — a nice fair breeze that would hardly have been considered a lady’s breeze off the New England coast.
“The Mistral!” they replied in one voice. “No one goes out when the Mistral blows. Boats that go out when the Mistral blows end up at Africa, if they end up at all; unless—” and Saucisse pointed a dramatic finger downward.
“You could beat back,” Stan suggested.
They looked at one another pityingly. He had given another indication of insanity.
“One cannot beat back against the Mistral,” said the elderly fisherman, with the air of a man who delivers a proverb of Solomon. And all together they burst out into talk of the deadliness of the Mistral.
Stan broke in on their chatter in a businesslike American way.
“Write to the owner of the boat in Antibes and find out what her exact price is, and then find some one who will make an estimate of her repairs,” he commanded.
The writing to the owner in Antibes seemed simple, but an exact estimate as to the cost of the repairs was a different matter; the simple Saint Raphaelese does n’t like to be pinned down to the concrete in this bridal Anglo-Saxon way. Babel arose again.
“It would n’t be much,” they vociferated.
“It depends upon how much M’ssieu’ insists upon having done,” said some one.
“And upon how many coats of paint he has in his mind,” said a second.
A woman on the outskirts of our little crowd admitted in an undertone that she believed that paint had gone up this year. And the hour having come for lunch, we dispersed, every one of us pleased with himself, since each opposing party had the consoling feeling of knowing the other to be wanting in intelligence.
I formed a little third party by myself, and what I thought of the Je l’Aimais or what I thought of Stan, I will not say, but my pleasure in my own superior thoughts was dominated by the impotent question: Would Stan buy her or would he not ?
When I looked out of the window the next morning, it seemed as if the beach had blossomed in the night with strange, exotic flowers, or as if a flock of birds with flame-colored wings had just that moment alighted there. The fishing fleet of Saint Raphael was drawn up high and dry on the crescent-shaped beach, as is the immemorial custom, and the many-colored sails of the boats were being dried in the morning sun. Beyond, the Mediterranean danced as blue as even the guidebooks pretend it is; and as the Mistral still blew gently, I knew the fishing fleet would not go out that day.
There were more things happening on the beach than the mere drying of sails. Old men were mending nets of fabulous lengths; women were hanging their clothes out to dry, and others were sitting gossiping on the keels of boats; others, again, were washing out wine casks. And, since the day was one when the cautious Mediterranean fisherman would not venture forth, — though it would have seemed the top of a fine morning to one of our Gloucester men, — all sorts of small repairs were going on on the boats themselves; here one man was giving a coat of paint to his boat’s keel; there, another was doing a bit of calking; or again, a man was letting a patch into the side of his boat. And these things were all done with a thoroughness — even with a ponderousness — that our land knows nothing of. The patch that was being let in I could see even from my window; it would outlast the fisherman’s children’s children if the boat did. The boats themselves, though none of them were much over forty feet, were of the same substantial build; they were as broad of beam as the women of Saint Raphael, and were built of ponderous planks and beams, — boats built to last for generations, if one liked.
The beach of Saint Raphael was more than a shipyard, more than a place to mend nets. It was the town park; it was the town nursery. Here fat French babies rolled around, tugging at their mothers’ skirts, who industriously plied the small activities of knitting, mending, and what not, such as thrifty French women love to bring with them into the open when they give their babies an airing.
Besides this, the beach was the place where the cart people pitched their booths. I could see from my window the waffle man dexterously making long, snakelike cakes through a funnel-shaped machine. Behind him, his wife sat on the steps of the cart, which was their home, preparing the midday meal, and gossiping with the neighbors. Farther along, the wife of the rival waffle man flaunted her feather boa contemptuously. It was perhaps because of the feather boa and a certain artificiality of complexion that she had no such solid standing among the good people of Saint Raphael as had her plainer competitor. French people are conservative, and any one will agree that if you live in a cart which is drawn by hired mules from place to place, and earn your living by making penny cakes and waffles out in the open air, naturally a feather boa and an artificial complexion, a hat, and a long skirt, are conspicuously out of place in the state of life to which God has called you.
The greatest crowd was assembled around the bird man, who was industriously raffling his green paroquets. One paid a sou for a ticket, and if one drew a lucky number, one might get a little green bird. A great many people raffled every day for these birds; I did myself, but I never saw any one carry a paroquet away with him, although Stan says he has. Like the other cart-dwellers, the bird man’s cart was directly back of his booth, and a large bull-dog lay at the door, sunning himself and pretending to watch over his master’s chattels; I had found out, however, that for all his undershot jaw and red eyes, he was a very venal beast, and could be bought off by a pat on the head and a kind word or two. Farther off down the beach, the merry-go-round was in full swing, whirling round its little wooden horses to the inspiring air of “ Viens Poupoule.”
Up and down the beach broad-hipped, short-skirted, full-chested women, with bright colored kerchiefs knotted round their necks, came and went on their business, hung up their multi-colored wash, darned their husbands’ breeches, peeled vegetables for dinner; plying, indeed, on the beach, all the little familiar occupations that a New England woman would keep for her back porch.
The men who were not at work on their boats grouped themselves into little knots, gossiping about the catch of fish, the arrival of the next sand boats from Nice, and the probable duration of the present Mistral. Presently I heard Stan’s voice behind me.
“She’s got the mellowest sail you ever saw,” he said; and well I knew who “she” was. “A better color than any of those down there. Come along and buy a chart of the coast.”
Below, in the hotel café, there was a difference of opinion as to where a detailed chart of the azure coast might be bought. One told us that charts of the nature we described might be purchased at the custom house; another recommended us to go to the Mairie; while still another kindly indicated the inspector of the port as the dispenser of all charts and nautical information. I saw our morning’s work cut out for us, and was glad; as, after all, it does no one any harm to buy a chart, and it amuses Stan.
When we got it at last, the coast between us and Cannes, and again from Cannes to the Peninsula of Antibes, seemed singularly devoid of small harbors; a bare, rocky coast it was, which perhaps accounted for the fact that the Romans always pulled their galley up on the beach at night and slept ashore — which custom has been followed ever since by the dwellers on the north coast of the Mediterranean.
The absence of harbors did not discourage Stan. “There will always be,” he asserted,“some little shelter where one can lay up a boat of this size. I can’t imagine anything more fascinating,” he went on, “than a cruise from here to Nice in a little boat.”
Neither could I, if I could have sent on the nurse and baby by mail, poste restante, and gone myself in a boat of a build which I understood better; for I have the woman’s distrust of anything I do not understand; and I will say for myself that my distrust of the small fishing craft of the Mediterranean was soon to have its foundation.
Stan, however, continued in his enthusiasm. “It hasn’t been done,” he exulted. “You see, it has n’t been done. These land-hugging fishermen never go out beyond rowing distance, and the Englishmen who cruise on this coast have done it in yachts they have had sent down. I believe in using the type of boat that the country affords. It is probably better adapted for the waters.”
“Why don’t the fishermen ever go out in rough weather, then ? ” I could n’t help asking.
“ Because they are Frenchmen from the south of France!” replied Stan, with a touch of irritation, as if that explained all.
“Let’s go out and hire a boat for a sail?” Stan suggested next; which I knew was merely an excuse for feasting his eyes on the lovely shape of the Je l’Aimais.
At home, the hiring of a sailboat is a simple matter. One finds a boat to hire, and after a certain amount of decent traffic concerning the price, one hires it or one does n’t. Here, we found a sailboat to hire without the slightest difficulty, and we wished to go out in it at once. But, said the man, — again it was Saucisse with whom we dealt, —
“M’ssieu’ the Directeur of the Port goes once a week to visit his maternal aunt at Fréjus, and without his consent it would be impossible, Madame and M’ssieu’, for me to take you.”
Stan naturally inquired what M’ssieu’ the Directeur of the Port had to do, in a land fairly bursting with Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité, with the taking of us out for an afternoon sail.
“M’ssieu’, ” replied Saucisse with calm, “it is the law. I have no license to take out pleasure parties; therefore each time I take out any one in my boat, I must have my paper signed by M’ssieu’ the Directeur of the Port. Otherwise, were anything to happen to you, I should be responsible to the government for your lamented corpses. You can see, M’ssieu’, the embarrassment it would put a poor man with seven small children dependent upon him to, to be responsible to the French government for the corpses of two distinguished foreigners. I cannot do it, M’ssieu’. To-morrow if you like — to-morrow in the earliest dawn — I will get the signature of M’ssieu’ the Directeur of the Port. But this afternoon — impossible.”
The next morning we started forth in the Young Louis, the boat of Saucisse. We started forth, it is true, against the remonstrances of Saucisse himself, his wife, the fishermen of Saint Raphael, the Director of the Port, the taker of customs, and the town physician. They all said it was no day to go sailing. Very little wind blew, the sky was slightly overcast; but still it was no day for a lady to venture forth; and they stood upon the massive structure of the mole, a picturesque, head-shaking crowd, watching our departure.
“Wind may come from those clouds,” Saucisse told us ominously. “Sooner or later, wind is sure to come.”
“Isn’t your boat seaworthy?” Stan asked with some temper.
“ M’ssieu’,”replied Saucisse, hurt, but still with dignity, “I did n’t think of my boat. I have been out often when the wind blew,” he continued proudly. “I think of Madame. If the wind blows, waves inevitably rise,”—he spoke as though he were imparting new scientific information to Stan, — “and if the waves rise, the spray will blow from them. And then —” he paused dramatically, — “Madame will be wet. Do what we may co prevent it, Madame will be wet from the spray of the sea. I don’t like it. We would do best to stay within the harbor. Still —” He bent himself to his oars.
Stan watched him rowing for a moment or two. It was a heavy boat, and required no mean pair of shoulders to get up what we so insistently call “a white ash breeze.” Then, —
“Why don’t you put your sail up?” he inquired. “Why don’t we sail out of the harbor ? ”
Saucisse bent to his oars.
“It is not the custom,” he said. “We always row in and out of the harbor. It prevents confusion. The wind, as you see, is against us. Were all the boats to tack back and forth, disaster might result. It is better so; we have always rowed in and out of the harbor.”
He bent to his oars again.
Stan subsided, but I knew that he was hurt to the very core of his yachtsman’s heart. His feelings, I knew, were similar to those of a well-brought-up girl who finds herself having to commit publicly some grossly unconventional act. Presently, after we had passed the mole and had cleared what other few boats were out, with infinite leisure, with none of the snap known to the North Atlantic yachtsman, — stopping to talk with Stan, who was very polite under the trying circumstances,— Saucisse finally unrolled his lateen sail, which lay across the bottom of the boat, and hooked it on to the bottom of the mast.
“I think I’d like to go across the bay,” Stan informed him.
Serenely, with uninterrupted calm, Saucisse headed in the other direction.
“The wind doesn’t serve for that course to-day, M’ssieu’,” said he with tranquillity. “It would be best to go down past the lion rouge and the lion d’or.”
This he explained as one explains things to a very young and rather uninintelligent child. “We will have a reach there and a reach back.” He took up the tiller. “Let us hope,” he said, “the wind does not change; otherwise the little waves will come up in a choppy fashion, and we shall be compelled to row home.”
“Why?” Stan demanded.
Saucisse looked at him with a pitying eye.
“One has to row home,” said he, “when one’s sail pitches off,” — which, it seems, is the habit of the picturesque lateen sail in anything like a sea-way.
I sat quiet, but content. I had sailed with my husband seven years, and in all that time I had never before heard his opinion disputed. In all those many years I had always seen him take whatever course he chose. I had seen him take the upper hand of a New England fisherman, of other yachtsmen, and especially I had had him take the upper hand of me. I had heard him use the pitying tone that Saucisse now employed. When Saucisse opened his mouth and spoke, he was a communicative Frenchman, and ready to impart information to the stray foreigner, however ignorant or however mad. He explained in words of one syllable the theory of sailing to my husband. He explained how the wind hit the sail and how one was unable to sail against the wind, and why one pushed the tiller this way, and again pulled it that. He explained these things with the same unspeakable patience that I had had them explained to me, after I knew them all.
We returned from our sail without mishap. I did not get wet, the wind did not rise, the sail did not pitch off, and Stan had had the theory of sailing explained to him thoroughly by a comic old pusillanimous Frenchman. I did n’t ask him if he had enjoyed the afternoon. I had.
Whether he had enjoyed the sail or not, Stan’s first act on arriving home was to find out if word had come from Antibes from the owner of the Je l’Aimais. It had not. “Why,” said the fisherman in the red tam-o-shanter, reproachfully, “it was only two or three days ago that we wrote!” Such haste evidently seemed to him indecent.
Stan had learned from Saucisse all he wished to know about sailing the native craft of the Mediterranean. There arose and grew in his mind a contempt for the Mediterranean fisherman and all his ways. He had sailed smaller boats on rougher water, single-handed, although his business in life did n’t take him on the sea, and these shore-keeping sailormen filled him with a wholesome New England disgust. He had always felt humble-minded in the face of a Gloucester man, so he said, and had expected to find the same metal in the fishermen along the Mediterranean coast; but except in the pleasantest of weather, land was the place for them.
I don’t know whether it was with the conscious desire of showing them how an American could sail one of their own boats, that he chose a day with a trifle more wind than they considered wholesome to go out in alone, or whether he felt that he had had enough lessons in seamanship. We joyfully started off together a few mornings later in the Quinze Mille Vierges, Saucisse having refused to hire us the Young Louis on such an unsuitable day for a lady to go sailing.
No word in the mean time had come from the owner of the Je l’Aimais, although more than a week had passed since we had opened negotiations for her purchase. And every day she had sung to Stan her song about owning one’s own boat and the joy one can have on the face of the waters in a little boat that belongs to one’s self and to no one else. He had waited with some impatience for the final letter. He had got estimates from the other men around the beach how much the old Je l’Aimais ought to cost. It was true that the putting her into the water would be far more expensive than the cost of her disreputable hulk, but, somehow, this did n’t impress Stan. What one spends on fitting up a boat afterwards never seems to count. It is like putting improvements into one’s own house.
The next best thing after sailing in one’s own boat is sailing in a hired boat, without a captain, having one’s own way, with no Saucisse to tell which way one must head, or to draw long faces about the wind’s coming up. We did n’t mind the wind’s freshening a little, anyway. Both of us were used to being wet with the spray of the sea.
So, contrary to all tradition, we hoisted our sail well in the harbor and made off for Saint Tropez, a town a few miles down the coast. A large concourse of beach loafers saw us off, and prophesied disaster with shrugs and gestures, while Saucisse openly expressed his opinion that had not M’ssieu’ the Directeur of the Port been absent that day to visit his maternal aunt, he would never have allowed us to proceed forth; although I don’t think he could have interfered, even under the paternal laws of the French government. There is no law which can prevent one from hiring a boat and going out in it, although a boat-owner must have his papers signed before he takes out a pleasure party. In the first case, no jealous government can ask what has become of its citizens. Their loss is their own folly.
We had a three-quarter reach out, and our boat made fair time. It was a heavenly day for a sail, and I knew that each mile in the Quinze Mille Vierges made Stan think how much he wanted a boat of his own. We were both as pleased as children with everything. We liked the naïve working of the lateen sail, we admired the marvelously clear water. We stopped in little coves along the lonely coast, just for the fun of exploring, like two children.
Then we headed for home about noon, after a perfect run of about three hours. The wind had shifted slightly, which meant a beat back. We made very little headway. There was, I remember, a certain big, cone-shaped pine tree that seemed to walk along the shore with us. I said nothing. It seemed to me one of those times in a woman’s life when questions are superfluous, and when it is even better not to talk at all.
Finally Stan burst out.
“I believe,” he exploded, “that this darned prehistoric dishpan is falling off!”
That was just what was happening. We were falling off. The steady adverse wind was calmly pushing her away from the land; and as we had no centreboard or keel, the Fifteen Thousand Virgins was acting just as a skiff with a sail would have done under similar circumstances.
“Perhaps she’ll go better on the other tack,” said Stan.
We tried to come about. We nosed up into the wind, and there her lovely red sail, mellowed by the delicious Mediterranean sun, flapped as useless as a flag. She had n’t had headway enough to come about.
Stan sat and gazed at it. He said nothing. There were no words in his vocabulary, brought up in the decent atmosphere in which he had been, that would adequately have expressed what he felt towards that sail and that boat.
I still said nothing. I knew if I did anything it would somehow get to be my fault. I made myself as inert and inconspicuous as the big pair of oars lying at the bottom of the boat. And still the red sail flapped derisively in the wind, and still the gentle current bore us off shore. There was only one thing to be done; I knew it and Stan knew it. Neither spoke of what it was. There was only one way to get that boat round. I went forward, and stood in the prow of the boat, looking down into the water, with my back to Stan; he took up the heavyoars, and like any “son of a snail-catching Frenchman” he rowed his boat round about.
It was the only way, but nevertheless it was a terrible come-down for a yachtsman who all his life has aimed to do in all things as a yachtsman should. Of course, there was no need of my keeping up this false delicacy the entire afternoon. Slowly we made our way towards home, falling off a great deal, always driven farther off shore, and always having to row about. We talked little about it, but we understood then why one cannot beat back against the Mistral, and why the Mediterranean fisherman only goes out on a pleasant day, and why Saucisse would n’t head in the direction that he was told to. And we also saw that if the breeze freshened, there would be nothing for it but to take in our sail and row slowly and painfully home, and that even then, there being but one man among us, the heavy boat might end up in some other place than the harbor of Saint Raphael.
I almost wished that this had happened, and that we had had a thrilling adventure to record, instead of the only climax being that a punctilious yachtsman had to row his boat about through long hours, while the sun and the waves smiled at him, and his wife, more sympathetic than the forces of nature, tried to pretend that she did n’t know what an unyachtsmanlike performance was in progress. If we had been blown on to an alien coast and had to spend a night under a tree, it would have been a far more glorious tale. As it is, we have talked very little about this performance since.
But we were not to be deprived of every dramatic touch. It took us three hours to sail down to Saint Tropez; it took us nine to beat back. It might have taken us twice nine, but for the wind’s shifting a little, and a little breeze enabling us to sail home the last three miles.
We arrived home after dark, at nine o’clock. On the mole as we came into the little harbor, past the little toy lighthouse, there was the flashing of lanterns and the hum of excited voices, and out of the darkness a voice hailed us. We answered, and from a score of throats came up a cry.
“They come! They come! It is they!” A woman’s voice gave thanks to the Blessed Virgin. All the fishing population of Saint Raphael was there and waiting for us. Two boats, we learned later, had gone out in search of us. Monsieur the Directeur of the Port was there, the Collector of Customs, with whom we had growm friendly, the doctor, our hotel-keeper, the head waiter, Saucisse, his voluble wife — all our friends, in fact.
A dozen hands helped us to land, while Monsieur the Directeur of the Port exclaimed to us in a reproachful tone,—
“Consider! Consider, M’ssieu’, my embarrassing position had some mischance occurred, as we all so feared!”
We made what might be called a triumphal entry. We were pointed out afterwards on the beach. It seemed that no small boat of the size of the Quinze Mille Vierges ever attempted to make Saint Tropez in an afternoon. We had accomplished a feat. Now they knew for a certainty that the madhouse was fairly yawning for us; still, our seamanship was a proven matter.
I did n’t ask Stan if he still desired to skirt the Mediterranean shore in a boat in use in these waters. He himself carried the whole thing off with bravado. He still inquired daily and with some acerbity if word had come from the owner of the Je 1’Aimais, and he confided to me that he should take some one along to row the boat around, since such seemed to be the local custom.
My own opinion is that not for anything in the world would he have bought a boat that caused one such humiliation; but still, I cannot tell. Men are strange and tenacious animals, and it may be that, had we ever heard from the owner of the Je l’Aimais, I should have to transfer it from the fleet of our narrow escapes to the fleet of the boats which we have owned. But we never did hear, so the question that put itself to me so vividly that day I first made the acquaintance of the Je l’Aimais, Would Stan buy or would n’t he? was never answered. She was, after all, as definitely out of our reach as any of the stately boats we only dreamed of buying, and only because we were in a land where the words, “Step lively, please!” have never yet been heard. Three weeks was too short a time for any man living in Antibes to get around to answering a business letter.
But I still have my curiosities. Had Stan bought the Je l’Aimais would she have drowned us, or should we have had more memories to add to the day we spent on the Fifteen Thousand Virgins ?