The Captain's Wife
HAD it not been for a woman and a canary bird Captain Dan McCann, of the schooner Morning Star, would not be limping around on a cane to-day, nor would a certain four sailors, before they sign on a new ship, inquire whether or not the captain carries his wife.
Captain McCann’s misfortune happened when the Morning Star was less than two days’ run from San Juan de Fuca, The weather up to that time had been pleasant, and everyone seemed happy, even in spite of the forecastle superstition that a woman on board brings bad luck.
Then one day the sun came up out of the ocean, pale from shouldering a watery-looking cloud away from the horizon. There were other little clouds skirting the waves, and on to one of them was hung a piece of a rainbow.
‘That’s a bad sign,’ remarked a short, stuffy sailor who suffered from asthma, ‘them things in the sky in the morning mean something, they do.'
The crooked-legged sailor leaned over the rail, his eyes set on the sun dog. ‘Of course it means something,’ he said, solemnly, ‘and if I don’t miss my guess that thing’ll bark before night.’
Captain McCann and his wife Kitty were walking the narrow poop. Kitty occasionally gave a squint at the rainbow; if she felt any alarm at what she saw, she kept it to herself, as befitted the seasoned mariner that she was. The captain’s only interest was in the speed of the schooner, which was racing away with a free sheet and all sail set.
The cook stuck his head out of the companionway. ‘Breakfast!’ he shouted.
‘Come on,’ said Kitty; the captain grunted, and the two went below.
While they were eating, little clouds seemed to group themselves together to make a big one, always a little nearer and more threatening.
When breakfast was over, Kitty went about the first of her cabin chores, which was to feed and water the canary bird — the apple of her husband’s eye and not to be touched by anyone save himself and her. Whether the threat of the sun dog influenced even so small a mite, or whether some latent ill luck really lurked in the touch of Kitty’s hand, certain it is that the canary escaped from its cage, flew to the deck, and alighted on the main boom.
Kitty’s voice seemed muffled in fur as it squelched through the compunionway.
‘For the love of Heaven,’ it said, ‘catch him, catch him!’
The captain, who was sitting on a mooring-bitt, picking his teeth with his pocket knife, jumped to his feet. The man at the wheel gulped, and wordless he pointed at the bird as it flew to the boom. Breathlessly Kitty reached the deck.
‘Did ye get him, Dan?’
‘Whisht, woman,’ the captain commanded, ‘ye have done enough this morning! ‘ ‘ God save me, it was n’t my fault at all, at all.’
‘Whisht, I tell ye!’ He made a motion as if to stamp his foot, but stopped in mid-air, afraid to frighten the bird.
‘Dan,’ she whispered, ‘shure and he won’t budge an inch if ye talk to him.’
Captain Dan gave his wife a stabstare from his angry red eyes, then, getting down on his hands and knees, he crawled over to the boom and the bird, leaving Kitty motionless, and seeming to breathe only with the roll of the ship. The man at the wheel let her wander at will, afraid that a squeak from a spoke might upset the captain’s purpose.
Cautiously the owner of the canary moved his hand up to the boom, then with a lunge grabbed for him.
‘Be-hivins,’ roared Kitty, ‘there he goes! ‘
Captain Dan rose to his feet grasping a tail feather. He stripped his teeth with another stare at Kitty.
Though first of all a woman, Mrs. McCann was aware that she was joint owner of the schooner with her husband, and therefore, in a sense, joint owner of the bird. She placed her hands on her hips, squared her shoulders, and spoke:
‘And is it shtandin’ there ye are, McCann, wit’ yer thick tongue in yer mouth while yer bird is up the mast in the cowld, and danger av it dyin’!’
Captain Dan walked over to the main rigging as the mate came on to the deck from his room.
‘Call all hands!’ ordered the master. There was a hiss behind his words as he turned toward Kitty:
‘A man may expect anything that carries his wife to sea with him! ‘
The helmsman’s lips moved as if in response, and a trickly murmur oozed from them to the effect that ‘Us-uns knows wot we knows.’
Kitty sniffled, as if to forestall a tear, and went down into the cabin.
No need to tell the crew what to do. With ferret eyes fastened on the canary bird they took to the rigging, the captain directing operations from the deck.
‘Tackle him gently,’ he ordered.
‘Aye, aye, sir,’ came from the throats of three sailors, two mates, and the cook.
But the canary bird was not to be caught in their big tarry fingers, and smothered there with kindness. When the puffing sailors got within arm’s length of him at the main crosstrees he fluttered his wings and flew forward to the foremast.
The captain, looking at the big black cloud to windward which, composite of little clouds, now looked like an island of gigantic size, with capes and inlets, shouted to the men to hurry. The asthmatic sailor, following his glance, took time to breathe and let some words fall to the deck.
‘There’s rain over there, and plenty of it,’ he said, pointing.
‘I’ll take care of that,’ barked the captain, bitterly. ‘ Up the foremast wit’ ye, and get him!’
Kitty sat in the cabin, her hands hanging limp in her lap. She was hurt by the insult from her husband. Then, as thought of his cruelty warped her to action, she clenched her fists, and the fire sparkled in her eye as of old. She rose to her feet.
‘I’ll tell him what I think av him — me that’s sailed the Morning Star while the auld whiskey-hound lay sobering up in a durty jail! And him up there tellin’ them flyin’-fish sailors of his that I’m the wan that’s bringin’ bad luck.’
She reached down and grabbed a handful of her skirts; her face was pale and angry as she said rasping words between her set teeth: ‘Dan McCann, ye’ll beg me pardon before the crew! ‘
She made a spring for the deck, and as she did she passed the canary bird flying past her down the stairs, and into the captain’s room.
‘God bliss ye, me darlin’, and it’s back again ye are.’
She followed him into the cabin, and slammed the door shut. The puckered pockets around her mouth disappeared and showed the sweetness of it. She pushed back straying locks of hair that was still curly, and held out a shapely hand to the bird. He lighted upon her finger, and she put him gently back into the cage. Then in an instant all tenderness left her and she started again for the deck, with savage speed.
But hardly had she the door handle in her hold when, with a rending roar from the deck above, the Morning Star pitched upon her beam ends, sending movables in the cabin crashing. Instantly Kitty’s legs compassed the angle of the cabin deck; she posed like a dancing frog.
‘God save me, is it the end of the world it is, and me not prepared at all, at all?’
The shadow of alarm crossed her face but for a moment, for the expression of a sea-fighter, like a flash of light, took its place. She opened the door, and the tightened muscles of her jaws made her cheeks bulge.
‘Me Dan is up there,’ she said simply, and went creeping on all fours to the deck. Captain Dan was lying there, face down, abaft the wheelbox, blood running out of his nose, and a part of the broken mainsheet wrapped around his leg. The crew were in the rigging, even to the helmsman, testifying to the power of the squall which had struck her. It had about spent itself now, leaving the Morning Star with barely a stitch of canvas on her gaff or booms. Kitty, with the look and sniff of a hunting dog, flew into action.
She cleared the mainsheet rope away from her unconscious husband’s leg, and dragged him to windward, away from further danger. She ran to the wheel and put the helm hard down; then she raced to the break of the poop. Placing her hand around her mouth she called aloft to the crew:
‘Quit talkin’ to yer Maker, I tell ye, and come down out of there, wit’ work to be done and your captain spacheless!’
Rain fell now, the last of the squall was driving away to leeward, and the Morning Star backed over to even keel again. The crew came down swiftly to the deck. The asthma-sailor slid down the forepeak halyards. As the rain water raced off him he spoke: ‘ I knew it, I knew it! ‘
‘Lay aft here!’ roared Kitty.
They carried the captain down to his room.
‘Handle him aisy, me b’ys,’ she ordered, ‘shure, it’s a bat in the head he’d be havin’.’ To herself she said:
‘ Hivin help me, I do belave it’s dead he is, and me not able to tell thim.’ As if to relieve her, the homely science of the forecastle voiced itself.
‘He’s a gone gosling,’ said the stuffy sailor.
‘Not while he bleeds at the nose,’ volunteered another.
‘W’en the ‘eart stops, the blood stops,’ said another, finally.
‘Out wit’ yez, ivery wan,’ said Kitty when they lingered to make their observations on how the laws of Karma were operating on their captain. To the mate she said:
‘Reeve a new main sheet. Haul your booms in ‘midships, save ivery rag of canvas ye can, and I’ll be wit’ ye soon.’
When she was alone, Kitty turned to her husband where he lay pale and motionless in his bunk, and looked at him as if she longed to take his place.
’God! is this the last of ye?’ she said, slowly. The captain’s head moved, and Kitty saw it. She sprang to a cupboard that was fastened to a bulkhead, and took from it a half-filled bottle, pouring some of its contents down his throat. She looked for towels to use to bathe his head. There were none, nor any rags. She opened her locker.
‘Whisht,’ she said, looking around cautiously; ‘shure wit’ babies and the dying a person has to do the best they can.’ The while she tore up her fine new red-flannel petticoat that was her pride and joy. Wetting a strip she bathed his face and head, partly with water, and partly with her tears. Whether from within, due to the contents of the bottle, or from without, from contact with unmanly material, color did come into Captain Dan’s cheeks, and he opened his eyes and spoke.
‘Did we save him?’
‘Ah,’ said Kitty ecstatically, ‘it’s yer own dear little yellow bird that’ll be lookin’ at ye now from his cage.’
A trace of a smile came into his face, followed by a spasm of pain.
‘It’s my leg that hurts,’ he said.
She cut the trouser-leg away, and found that the leg was broken below the knee, and badly cut by the rope of the stranded sheet. She made him as comfortable as she could, and reassured him about the squall and the ship. Then she left him, and went on deck.
‘She’s a foine little vessel,’ he said, as she opened the cabin door.
‘Deed an’ she is, whin she have a good man like you to command her.’
Observing the twitch of his eyebrow she said to herself: ‘It’ll not be his brains that’s hurt,’ and smiled as she went on deck.
There she ordered the mate to saw off an oar-blade and split it lengthwise, evening up the thickness. While this was in the doing she took stock of the damage of the squall.
It was not hard to compute. Everything that the Morning Star carried in the shape of sails was hanging like a Monday morning washing on a limp and tattered clothesline. The crew looked at Kitty with witchlike nervousness, and the asthma-sailor went around wheezing like a wind-broken horse.
‘We’ll never reach port,’ he whined, ‘Lord, how can we? If only a ship would come along and take us off!’
Kitty, deaf to everything, seized the two pieces of split oar-end and bounded with them to the cabin, where, with the homely skill of the sea, she set the broken leg and bandaged it with sheets torn to strips, embellishing her handiwork for warmth and durability with the remains of the potent petticoat.
‘There, me man,’ she said finally, standing off and looking with the eye of the craftsman at the groaning Dan, ‘it’s content ye’ll have to be wit’ a nice cup of coffee that I’ll be sendin’ in to ye, while I goes about gettin’ th’ Morning Star to port.’
She went up to the deck again, and at once her manner changed to nonchalant alertness, to suit the news brought her by her gimlet eye that all was not well with ship and crew. She made no comment on the information that the Morning Star did not have a spare sail on board, and that what was hanging to the bolt-ropes was of no use to the schooner now. The thought was on her mind that her husband’s life might depend on how quickly she got him to a doctor.
‘I could make the run in twinty-four hours wit’ this breeze,’ she said to herself, ‘if—if—’ The mate stepped up on the poop.
‘The crew,’ he said, ‘are talking about taking to the lifeboat. They think they stand a better chance of rowing to port than of making it in a schooner without canvas, and the captain crippled and perhaps dying.’
She stopped walking.
‘Is that all there is to it?’ she asked lightly, and slowly her lips relaxed into an irresistibly coquettish smile. He looked down at the deck sheepishly.
‘Anyway they’re putting tackles on the big boat,’ he said, ‘you can see them yourself.’
Suddenly she straightened and jumped in front of him.
‘ I’m going to take the Morning Star to port,’ she said savagely. ‘Are you for me or against me, is what I want to know.’
He looked at her — then, as once before, he gave in.
‘For you,’ he said briefly.
Instantly she seemed to have forgotten all about him. She pulled off her heavy sweater with one single jerk, adjusted the waistband of her skirt with another, and with nimble fingers tucked the celluloid pins into rebellious hair. She felt of her shoes to see that they were tight to her feet.
‘Stay here,’ she commanded, ‘till I come back.'
With springy steps and loose shouldermuscles she bounded on to the main deck.
‘What are ye doing, min?’ she shouted.
A stout and paunchy sailor answered her while he hooked a tackle-block into the boat. ‘ Do you think we are going to stay here and starve? Better come along, ma’am, it’s the only chance you’ll have.’
‘Take down your blocks and tackles!' Kitty’s voice had an eagle scream to it.
‘Hoist away, men,’ said the paunchy sailor, ‘pay no attention to her.’
The words were scarcely out of his mouth when Kitty flew at him with feet and fists. She hit him on the jaw, she kicked him on the shins and rapped his head against the deadeye.
‘Take down the tackles,’ she yelled, ‘before there’s willful murdher committed here!’
The cook ran into the galley and hasped the door shut. Crooked-Leg, with a single leap, took to the rigging. Still Kitty, possessed of the agility and vengefulness of a tigress, continued to pound the big sailor.
‘If you’d let me up, I’d take ‘em down,’ he managed to say at last, plaintively.
‘Right-o, mate,’ said Crooked-Leg from the rigging, ‘when she gets like this there ain’t nobody got a show.'
Kitty backed away, watching the boat tackles come down. Never had she seen sailors work so fast and readily.
‘Now,’ she said, when the job was done, ‘wan av yez get hould av that galley shneaker and have him take a nice cup av coffee to me husband Dan. But first I have wan word to say.
‘If it wasn’t that I’m busy this marnin’, I ‘d punish ye right for thryin’ to run me ship. But hear this from me,’ and she emphasized her words with a threatening fist and the shifty foot of a buck-and-wing dancer, ‘the first wan that’ll open his mouth about me or the Morning Star from here to port, or afther we get there — God help him, that’s all! Now you,’ she ordered Crooked-Leg, ‘tind to the coffee, and the rest of yez go to the fo’castle and fetch up annything that’ll catch wind. Mind ye don’t be lavin’ anny blankets behind.’
Looking like men who were going to their doom, but cowed beyond repair, they went off silently to obey her orders. Returning, they brought blankets and quilts by the armload, and dumped them on the hatch. Pink, black, yellow, brown, white, and red, contributions from the mate and the master; even Captain Dan was stripped to one quilt.
‘Now, me min,’ ordered Kitty, as cheerfully as if nothing were out of the way, the while she scrutinized each blanket for its wind-carrying power, ‘take the tarpaulins off the hatches and sew thim in wit’ these here. Mind ye, no herringbonin’ but a nice double seam wit’ a close stitch.’
Silently the crew sat down to sew. All that day tobacco flew unhindered, and silent oaths; and night found them still at it by lantern light. The hours of darkness passed in their turn, and the brightness of a new sun returned in defiant color waves from a complete and neat set of sails the like of which for tone and texture the seven seas do not often behold. The wind laughed on both sides of the new canvas, and the blue sky shone through the weave, but the Morning Star gathered headway, and the sailors alternately cast yearning glances at their blankets, and proud looks at their handiwork.
As chance would permit, too, their eyes would rest upon Kitty as she walked the poop, confident and conquering, and to them she looked the masterful master. At noon, when she took the sun and told them the distance to port, their mangling glances wilted to glows of genuine admiration, and when she spoke they raised their caps and ran with a will to the work she ordered. That night they slept as best they could without covering. It was only when the asthmatic sailor was seized with a fit of sneezing that Crooked-Leg voiced their nervousness.
‘She’ll have us all in the hospital yet,’ he said, gloomily.
Land was sighted at last, and with it two tugboats coming at full speed for the Morning Star.
‘We’re all right now,’ said the paunchy sailor, whose jaw moved stiffly when he spoke, ‘she’s bound to take a tug. I’d hate to go into port with them outlandish sails.’
‘So’d I,’ answered Crooked-Leg, ‘but you can’t never be sure of Mrs. McCann.’
‘There’s a law that’ll make her.’
‘That’s a good un, that is,’ and Crooked-Leg laughed and slapped his thigh. Why that just shows you don’t even know her yet.. She makes her own laws, she do.’
Like greyhounds the tugboats raced within hailing distance of the schooner, whose unique appearance attracted them as honey does the fly. When they came within earshot their comments were such as to bring a blush to the cheek of any mariner, and the watch below skulked in the protection of the forecastle. Kitty, without change of gait or manner, continued indifferently to walk the poop.
‘They are shouting to you, Mrs. McCann,’ said the mate nervously, ‘they say that with this freshening wind our sails will be gone in no time.’
‘Ah, let thim roar,’ she answered, ‘sound is chape. You get off the poop and let me handle thim. Shure a woman can do more in toimes like this than ary man.’
Kitty well knew the danger that the schooner was facing, with a lumpy sea and strong puffs of wind from the southwest; with Destruction Island on the one side and Vancouver Island on the other. She knew also what would happen should she take alarm and fall before the wolfish onslaught of the two tugboats.
‘It’s blowing a gale,’ shouted one. ‘I’ll tow you as far as Dungeness for two thousand five hundred.’
‘Take my heaving-line,’ roared the other. ‘I’ll make it two thousand and not a nickel less. You ‘ll be shipwrecked in less than an hour, and you know it.’ There was a silence. ‘Do you hear me?’ came from the second. Meantime, thought Kitty, two hundred yards gained.
‘Shure I hear ye,’ she answered goodnaturedly. ‘Who would n’t be hearin’ sich foine min as ye?’
‘Nineteen hundred,’ shrieked the first.
‘Give me a little time to think,’ from Kitty. Another five hundred yards.
The argument went on, and so intent were the rival captains upon fleecing Kitty, and so determined to win this extraordinary prize from each other, that they took no count of distance traveled, as their prices fell by twohundred-dollar leaps.
‘Be daycint, min, be daycint,’ said Kitty, and so the haggle was held, until all danger was passed and the Morning Star, with her gratuitous escort, stood well inside the Cape. Then, politely, Kitty informed them that she would not need them now.
When, two hours later, the doctor came aboard, she scored a greater triumph.
‘Whoever set your leg,’ he said to Captain Dan, ‘knew his business.’
‘I think so,’ answered Danny McCann, artfully.