A QUICK flurry of soft rain drove slantwise across the decks. The drops were large and scattered and made a pleasant pattering sound as they struck. In a minute the cloud from which they were falling had passed across the sun and was fleeing to leeward down a bright blue sky mottled with masses of gray and white. The drops that hung from the rigging and the spars, and from the eaves of the deck houses, glittered like gems in the rays of the westering sun. They trembled in the wind and ran together with the motion of the ship, or were shaken off by the vibration of her passage and fell with isolated small splashes here and there about the decks. The wind was westerly, a strong, steady breeze that filled the sails and heeled the ship gracefully to port, driving her swiftly to the south. An outflung curl of foam ran before her prow with a continuous mellow roar, as of light surf on a long sandy beach.
Davie Graham, the ordinary seaman in the port watch, came on deck at eight bells in the afternoon watch and went under the fo’c’sle head to get a broom from the bosun’s locker. Swinging it over his shoulder, he went aft and mounted the poop ladder on the lee side, walked smartly past the cabin skylight, and crossed in front of the wheel to the weather side, where he started sweeping the deck. The captain and the mate were standing together near the forward taffrail talking about the weather, and Davie swept carefully all round them, finished the other side, and descended to the main deck, which he went over in something less than half an hour. From there he ran up the ladder to the fo’c’sle head, swept that small surface in a few minutes, then replaced the broom in the bosun’s locker.
The day’s work being finished, and having nothing to do now but wait for orders, he came from under the fo’c’sle head and leaned against the bulwark rail, gazing at the loom of land away on the starboard bow. They had told him that Staten Island lay over there, and the sight stirred him strangely, as the view of dim headlands from the sea always did. But at the moment his thoughts were partly occupied with the stormy threat of Cape Horn. He had no oilskins or sea boots and he could not afford to buy them from the slop chest because he needed every penny of wages he would get when the ship arrived at San Francisco. His watchmates had warned him that the need for oilskins and boots off the Horn was nothing short of imperative, that he would die from exposure without them. Timkins, the Londoner, a fattish, good-humored man with pop eyes, who joked a good deal about the parsimony of the Scots, had tried to convince him of this.
‘Dammit, Davie, what d’ yer want t’ be so tight with yer money for? Yer’ll bloody well croak off the Orn if yer don’t ’ave oilskins an sea boots. Wet t’ the skin orl the time an’ perishin’ wi’ the cold. I knows you Scotchies are stingy with yer money, but this ain’t no bloomin’ picnic down ’ere. Better spend a few dollars an’ save yer life.’
Another spatter of rain swept across the decks, heavier this time, but not enough to drive him to shelter, and he glanced at the cloud that was drifting overhead. It was larger and blacker than the one that had brought the previous shower, and he noticed there were more clouds in the sky, which did not seem so blue. A thin gray film was spreading over, and twisted streamers of lacy, snow-white stuff were flung across it from west to east.
The shower blew over, and the sun dipped into the sea under the edge of a cloud that suddenly became a flame of red and gold. The light spread across the west and broke into many colors among the masses of cloud, smoky saffron, livid purple, and dull bloodred. Davie gazed at it with parted lips until it faded and only the far white streamers showed a gleam of pale pink. The western sky began to look black and ominous; the wind gathered force and passed through the rigging with a faint whistling moan. The ship heeled over a little more and increased her speed, and Davie shivered. He was anxious to reach the rapidly nearing Horn and have done with it. When four bells went and the starboard watch came on deck he hurried to the galley for his tea.
The wind increased steadily as darkness came on and the night advanced. The half-moon rode high in a checkered, threatening sky, her light mostly hidden behind the dark masses of rain cloud that drove up with growing pace from the west. Light lashings of spray began to come over the rail forward; the showers of rain became heavier and developed into squalls that held a good deal of wind. The Staten Island light drew rapidly abeam, a faint glow far down in the black sky at the horizon.
It was getting colder, and Davie sat with his watchmates looking out on the dark deck and listening to the sounds of the rising storm. In the narrow space of their quarters it was still warm enough to be comfortable, and the door had been left open. Most of the men were in their bunks enjoying a smoke after the evening meal. Douglas, the New Yorker, was reading by the imperfect light of the lantern that hung by a small chain from the centre of one of the overhead beams. Drummond, a ‘townie’ of Davie’s from Glasgow, sat on his sea chest darning a heavy woolen sock. Timkins was spinning a yarn about a girl he had known in Liverpool who had kept him for three months. He gave details of astonishing intimacy, and concluded with the statement that he left her because she refused to buy him a meerschaum pipe.
In the silence that followed they heard the second mate shouting the order to haul the staysails down, and listened to the bustle on deck as the watch executed the order, the singingout on the downhauls, and the scraping rattle of the cringles as they slid down the stays. The sounds were louder when they came forward to the main staysails; later there was a stamping of boots and a series of shouted orders overhead while they were taking in the jibs. This shortening of sail eased the motion of the ship, and she did not heel over quite so much. When the work was finished, the watch waited in a group about the fore hatch, expecting that the royals would be furled immediately. But the captain held on to the royals as long as he could without running the risk of losing them. The passage so far had been slow, delayed by light airs and head winds, and he was anxious to make up some of his lost distance.
The port watch went on deck at eight bells, and the men were told to stand by and keep handy. They took their usual place on the fore hatch, but were driven from there by the heavy sprays that were now coming over frequently, and went aft to the main hatch, where it was dry. The bosun leaned against the rail, apart from the men but keeping in touch with them, and Davie sat on the deck in the lee of the forward house, where he was sheltered from the wind and the rain. The squalls were coming up at shorter intervals, and it seemed to him that the ship canted over dangerously while they were blowing, yet he liked the exhilaration of the night, the wailing sound of the wind in the rigging, and the swift, leaping motion of the ship. Even the thick darkness pleased him. It shut him away from the men, banishing his reluctant sense of their constant, though mostly silent, criticism, which, out of their presence, he forgot.
A pale blotch appeared in the darkness from the direction of the main hatch, and Drummond groped his way along the side of the house, sitting down on the deck beside him.
‘ Why don’t ye buy oilskins an’ boots from the slop chest?’ he asked unpleasantly as soon as he had settled himself. ‘The whole ship’s talkin’ aboot it.’
Davie resented this remark and the tone in which it was uttered, but he made no reply.
‘Ye’re the sort o’ felly that gives the Scotch a bad name. Ye’re too close tae buy the things ye need. Mibbe ye think somebody might give ye thum fur nothing.’ His face was barely visible in the darkness, but Davie knew the look of sour resentment that was on it, and he had one of his rare flashes of anger.
‘No,’ he replied, ‘I don’t expect anything like that.’ He leaned over toward Drummond’s sou’westered head. ‘I have a good reason for what I’m doing, and I ’ll thank you to understand that and mind your own business.’
Drummond was considering what reply to make, when the wind rose suddenly to a hard wail in the rigging and the deck slanted under them till they could hear the water bubbling in the scuppers. The man and the boy rose and leaned against the house till they heard the stentorian voice of the bosun roaring the order to clew up the royals. Drummond disappeared on his way to the foremast, and Davie followed him. The rain was driving across the decks at a sharp angle and as he passed from the shelter of the deck house it dashed stormily against his face and hands. Running to the weather side of the deck, he took hold of the clew line with the others and hauled cheerily as the mate slacked away the clew. He was under the lee of the bulwarks here and partly sheltered from the rain.
By the time’ they had both royals clewed up and the buntlines hauled taut, the squall had passed over, and the ship was running on a more even keel. But the wind was blowing stronger and they were rapidly approaching the open seas in the latitude of Cape Horn; therefore the captain decided to shorten her down at once, and gave the order to take in the topgallant sails. When they had been clewed up and the lines hauled taut, Davie jumped into the fore rigging and climbed aloft to make the royal fast, the bosun coming after him with the watch to tie up the topgallant sail.
There was something like half a gale blowing now, but furling the royal was not such a difficult job, and almost as simple as folding a table napkin. Davie handled it into a neat roll on top of the yard and passed round the gaskets, one on each yardarm, making a light, snug job of it so that t he sail would not blow adrift in the heavy gales to be met during the next few weeks. He could hear the men on the topgallant below him singing out as they dragged the sail on top of the yard.
Up here on the royal yard Davie felt more at peace than anywhere else on the ship. In the darkness he had a pleasant impression of being all alone in a world of his own, the occasional cries of the men underneath seeming remote and casual sounds with which he was unconcerned. He paused to appreciate the scene for a moment before descending. All around him was wind-filled darkness, except close at hand, where the shadowy gleam of the furled sail on the yard was dimly visible. The mast made a mere blur that rose out of sight, although the truck was only a few feet above his head. Black and ominous as the night appeared, with its thick clouds and rising gale, it did not daunt him. He had shaken off the shivery mood of the early evening and was now firm and resolute.
The Staten Island light sank rapidly astern to starboard and went out in blackness. They took in the mainsail and foresail and braced the yards up till the ship was close-hauled on the starboard tack, changing the course to southwest and bringing her head up to the sea. By the time this work was done it was eight bells, and blowing a full gale. She was now carrying all four topsails, the storm staysail, and a narrow strip of spanker on the mizzen. A fine wind-blown rain drove steadily across the decks, and the scud raced overhead close above the mastheads.
Davie was soaking wet when he went below, but he had been so active helping to shorten down that he had not felt the cold. Inside the fo’c’slc he stripped to the skin, gave himself a sharp rubdown with a rough towel, hastily pulled on a dry suit of woolen underwear, old and patched, but still good, dived under the blankets, and slept as his head touched the pillow.
It seemed an incredibly short space of time till he was awakened by the raucous yell of the man calling watch, which wrenched him up from the deep wells of sleep at fifteen minutes to four. Dragging himself over the edge of his bunk, he got a dry woolen shirt and a suit out of his battered trunk, a pair of socks and shoes which he had never expected to wear again, and a woolen muffler. Thus equipped, he was ready for the howling deck. He was dressed a minute or two before eight bells, and sat listening to the seas breaking over the rail forward. The water thundered about the decks and washed past the door, but was kept out of the fo’c’sle by the high doorsill. Sometimes, when a heavier sea came over, thin streams spurted in through the cracks of the closed door. He noticed the wildly tossing motion of the ship and heard the shrill scream of the wind in the rigging.
In weather like this the watch were not required to muster aft, it being the duty of the bosun to sec that they were all on deck and report any absentees to the mate on the poop. When eight bells went, Davie opened the door cautiously and peered out, but a sea broke aboard just then, and he shut the door with a bang and waited till the water had sluiced past and was foaming aft to the waist. It was his lookout from four to six, and he stepped briskly on deck as soon as it was clear of water and ran to the after end of the house, climbed the vertical iron ladder to the top, and relieved the man on lookout, who reported nothing in sight and went below. Up there Davie was out of the reach of the seas that came aboard, and mostly shielded from the driving spray by the lifeboat lashed to the skids alongside. The men came up the ladder immediately after him, relieved the starboard watch, and found the most sheltered spot in the lee of the boat, where they settled themselves in a huddled group.
Davie leaned against the gunnel of the lifeboat, his keen eyes fixed ahead. All he could see was a wall of blackness, except when the surges rose above the level of the head and the angry waters glittered in the red or green rays of the port or starboard side light. There were frequent dashes of spray, heavy clouds that burst upward in front of the windward light, shot high above the rail by the smashing impact of the bow against an oncoming wave, then were caught by the wind and whipped across the deck. These leaping masses of white water flashed into the rays of the green light with an effect that was weirdly beautiful, and Davie gazed at them from time to time, but always brought his eyes sharply back to the darkness ahead, where the lights of a running ship might lift into view at any moment. But no light appeared.
The boat did not shelter him completely from the spray, which came over the top, round the bows, and under the keel. By two bells he was wet to the skin, and when Douglas relieved him at four bells he was thoroughly soaked and shivering so violently from the cold that he could hardly speak the words, ‘Nothing in sight.’ The man just relieved from the wheel and the lookout were always allowed ten minutes in the fo’c’sle for a smoke. Davie used this time to strip off his wet clothing, give himself a brisk rubdown as before, and wring most of the water out of his clothes before putting them on again. He had the good sense to reserve his third and last dry suit of underwear for sleeping in, believing he could endure the hardships of the deck so long as he slept dry and warm during his watches below.
The westerly gale blew for three weeks, and Davie was wet and cold in his watches on deck during all that time. Then the wind fell suddenly and hauled round to south, and it grew colder. During the lull the glass was very low and they furled the upper topsails, braced the yards sharp up on the port tack, and hove to. A roaring gale came out of the south with squalls that carried hail and sleet, but except when these wintry storms were raging the sky was clear and the stars were beautiful at night. Storm and wetness and misery became an accepted fact in Davie’s life, and he held to his purpose day by day with a resolution as grim and hard as the conditions he had to face. The gale blew out in two weeks and came away again from the west. After three weeks of that it changed again. Most of this time they were hove to and went backward instead of forward.
They had now been nearly nine weeks beating off the Horn. The present gale was from the south, a hard, cold wind that blew from a clear sky, and the heaviest they had yet met. The men of the starboard watch were certain that the fore upper topsail would have to come in, and lay crouched in a huddled group behind the boat on the roof of the forward house, expecting and dreading the order. But the watch wore away without any sign from the poop, and at eight bells they were relieved and went below feeling thankful and a little bit sorry for the other fellows.
By carrying all his topsails, the captain was able to drive the ship some small distance, perhaps ten miles a day, to the south and west. Hove to under lower topsails, she would have made leeway, drifting to the north and east — the two directions in which the captain did not wish to go. To the north lay the deadly shores of Cape Horn; to the east was distance that would have to be won back again with bitter toil and hardship to the men, of which they had already suffered more than enough.
Davie crouched among the men and gazed at the stars. He never tired of watching that marvelous sky, where the Southern Cross blazed like four small suns and all the stars glittered with a sparkling brilliance that charmed him. But it was bitterly cold in the roaring wind that came straight from the white antarctic. Even the men were cold, although their oilskins and boots protected them from the continual gusts of icy spray that swept the ship from stem to stern.
A sudden stir among his mates attracted Davie’s attention aft, and he saw the mate running forward along the main deck, keeping a wary eye over the weather bulwarks for seas coming aboard. When he reached the main hatch the bosun met him and got his order, which was unheard by the men in the dominant roar of the storm. But they knew very well what it was, and the bosun hardly needed to climb the ladder to repeat the order: —
‘Stand by fore tops’l halyards.’
The watch rose wearily and scrambled down from the top of the house, hating to go and hating to hang back. No seas came over while they staggered across the reeling deck and crouched by the dripping rail. Davie was accustomed to this sort of thing by now, but the weather side of the ship never ceased to interest him. The first sea that came over would drench him to the skin, and he was already cold. He shut his jaws tight and tailed on at the end of the buntline. The spray lashed over and stung his face and hands, but he put all his weight on the rope as the mate slacked away the halyards and the yard came down. Davie took his eyes off the weather rail for a moment, and he did not hear the warning hail of the mate in time to dive under the bulwarks and hang on to a stanchion.
The sea came over with a swift downward leap and beat him to his knees. He had learned to hold on to what he had and not to try for something better unless he was actually touching it, so he clung desperately to the buntline. The icy water went through his clothing to his skin almost as the sea struck him, but that did not concern him at the moment. His chief anxiety was to save himself from being swept overboard. The sea went boiling aft and dragged at him powerfully, and he had all he could do to keep his grip on the buntline. When the ship rolled he was flung against the side of the house, and as she swung to the other side he went down in a cascade of foam to the bulwarks. He received no serious injury from these concussions, but the rush of the water toward the waist as her head rose to the next sea was more than he could hold on against. Though his grip on the rope was so intense that he had the sensation of tearing muscles in his arms, the sea wrenched him loose and swept him aft. He groped wildly for a fresh hold, felt himself carried against the main hatch, but could not find a grip there, was washed down to the lee scuppers and back between the hatch and the after end of the deck house, where he came against the ladder and found a grip. Dragging himself upward, he held on till he got his breath and collected his senses, coughing up some of the rank sea water he had swallowed. Timkins rose from the welter of foam beneath him and clung to the ladder at his side. Davie was blue with the cold and shivering violently, but as soon as the deck had drained clear he stumbled off the ladder and worked his way cautiously forward, where he took his place again on the buntline, Timkins following close behind him. Other seas came aboard, but Davie watched for them and dived under the topgallant rail, embracing a stanchion with both arms until the water had run aft. He was blinded and battered by the cold spray, drenched and beaten and just about drowned by the seas, but they got the lines hauled taut at last, and the mate gave the order, ‘Up an’ make fast.’
The men swung themselves into the weather rigging willingly, glad of the change from the reeling fury of the deck to the wild hazard of the topsail yard. Davie seized the swifter and heaved himself on top of the rail, hardly caring now whether a sea caught him or not. He was as wet and cold as it was possible to be, so why try to dodge a little more water? Turning his back to the shrieking wind, he started to climb the rigging. The weight of the gale when the ship rolled to windward flattened him against the shrouds and held him helpless. As she rolled to leeward the pressure lessened, and he climbed up a few ratlines till she came back to port again. He had thought he could feel no colder while on deck, but as he mounted into the full sweep of the icy wind he discovered his mistake.
Trying to control the convulsive trembling of his half-frozen body, he reached the futtock shrouds, where he had to make sure of his grip while climbing over the top. With the double grip of hand and elbow he worked himself slowly over the edge and clung to the topmast rigging with a sensation of relief, a little warmer from the exertion. Arrived at the level of the topsail yard, he waited a moment while the man above him stepped across to the swinging foot rope. Davie glanced at the sail and wondered how human beings could possibly control and tie up a thing like that. From where the buntlines and leech lines held it close to the yard, it bellied out in enormous balloon shapes that swayed up and down in the gale. Occasionally by some twist or eddy in the storm the sail seemed to lose the wind and partly flattened down. But the next moment it snapped out with the report of a big gun and a force that shook the ship from truck to keelson. Running through these loud boomings were series of sharp cracks like the noise of heavy whips, and an unbroken rumble like thunder. Davie stepped on the yard behind Douglas, who turned to him and roared at the pitch of his voice: —
‘One hand for the owner and one for yourself! ’
Davie heard the words remotely, as slender threads of sound, delicate as gossamer. They brought him back again into that working communion with his fellows from which his intense misery had isolated him, and he clawed his way out on the yardarm with a slight lessening of physical discomfort, as if warmed by the realization that a mate had thought of his safety. Arrived at his place on the yard, he clutched the jackstay with a straining grip and leaned forward against the yard, his right hand resting on the bellying sail, which felt cold and hard as iron. The motion of the yard was indescribably wild, and he needed all the strength of his grip to hold his place on the slender footrope. He stood crouched over the yard and leaning on it, watching the actions of Douglas on his right, beating the sail with what seemed puny and ineffectual blows in the effort to make a crease in the canvas, a fold that he could grip in order to drag it on top of the yard, where he could hold it with the pressure of his body while working for the next hold. When one of the men achieved such a grip the one next him picked it up, and it was seized by each man in turn all along the yardarm. Sometimes a grip was secured during the moments when the sail slackened, but they did not always succeed in dragging it up, for after these comparative lulls the canvas flung outward with such violence that it was wrenched out of their hands, and once or twice they lost all they had gathered on the yard. When this happened they cursed from their hearts, deep growling oaths that nobody heard but themselves.
Davie’s eyes flickered from sail to hull as he put every ounce of his strength into the work. He saw the bows plunge into the boiling foam, caught the gleam of white water as she rose and poured it back over her head, tightened his grip instinctively as the mast whistled down, hung on to jackstay and sail and hugged the yard as she flogged to leeward. He forgot his wet, shivering body in that wild scramble with death, lost interest after a while in what the hull of the ship was doing, and became a primitive battling creature with clenched teeth and flailing arm, fighting the shrieking demon in the sail. Faint sounds of a human voice came from vast distances to his ears. They were from the bosun at the bunt, the heaviest part of the sail, who sent roaring curses of encouragement from time to time: —
‘Hold what you get, men! Keep the damned rag on the yard or we’ll hang up here till we die!’
Davie’s legs, held rigid in the same position on the slender footrope, became numb and stiff. The nails tore away from the fingers of his right hand, which became so painful that he was made aware of it and changed his grip, holding to the jackstay with his right and working with his left. He knew nothing of the passage of time, and only dimly felt the white squalls that began to bluster up, bringing heavy showers of hailstones and sleet that froze into the canvas and made it still more difficult to handle. He was numb to the waist and bruised about the chest from the heavy pressure against the yard, but he kept on fighting the sail, which now seemed a personal and malignant enemy. When it became apparent that they were winning the battle against this beast, he felt a glow of immense satisfaction and joy.
They finished on the weather yardarm and crawled painfully to the lee side, which was comparatively easy to take in, and suddenly Davie saw himself hauling taut one of the gaskets. When this was done he looked round him strangely, glancing with tired wonder into the faces of the other men. It was broad daylight and the topsail was furled.
They crept exhausted from the yard and down to the sea-swept deck as eight bells went. When they saw the man on lookout run across the fore hatch and strike the bell, they looked at the mate in a kind of anguish, wondering if he would let them go below or keep them on deck to help take in the main upper topsail. But the mate sang out as they reached the deck: —
‘Relieve the wheel and lookout!’
The weary men slouched into the fo’c’sle, filled their pipes, and lit them at the lantern, breathing curses on their raw-tipped fingers. Davie dropped into his bunk and slept instantly. Douglas puffed at his pipe, leaned against the front board of Davie’s bunk, and looked at the eighteen-year-old boy with pity and admiration. ‘Good Lord, kid,’he thought, ‘I’d buy you a suit of oilskins and a pair of boots, but you have n’t asked me to, and I’d sure like you to have the satisfaction of going through with it.’
They forgot breakfast in their weariness, had not the strength to go for it, and dropped into their bunks, smoking. Their pipes fell out of their mouths almost as their heads touched the pillows, and they slept. As pillows, bed, and blankets were damp and clammy, there was no fear of fire. The cook had breakfast ready and waiting for them, and after a while he ran forward to the fo’c’sle door to ask them why they did not come for their grub. But when he put his head inside and saw them sunk in sleep he muttered, ‘Poor beggars,’ and ran aft again, barely escaping a sea that came over and lashed at his heels as he slammed the galley door.
The sea had played the port watch a cruel trick. The captain had taken in the fore upper topsail because the glass fell ominously before the coming of the white squalls. But they were the last efforts of the gale, which died down rapidly to a flat calm within a few hours. The sea went down and the sky clouded over with a gray scud that foretold the coming of a wind from the west. The port watch was called at seven bells for dinner, and Davie dragged himself with a supreme effort out of his bunk. After a while the strange stillness penetrated the dullness of his mind, and he noticed first that there was no deck water swishing about the fo’c’sle as she rolled. He listened and heard no sound of wind or any crash of seas falling aboard, and, making his way painfully to the door, he opened it and looked out. The deck was dry and the sails were flapping against the masts. Amazement held him speechless; then he turned and said to the men inside, ‘It’s dead calm.’ They had a good dinner, the cook giving them double rations and plenty of coffee, which they ate and drank with keen relish and felt themselves renewed and restored for the battle. The starboard watch loosed the fore topsail and were kept on deck to put their weight on the halyards. The foresail was then loosed and reefed, and when this was done the starboard watch were sent below. It ran through the ship that the captain was tired of beating off the Horn and was going to carry on with all his topsails and the reefed foresail if the coming wind would let him steer a safe course. They had been nine weeks down there, and he intended to drive the ship the rest of the way.
Davie lay on the fore hatch in his partially dry clothes most of his watch on deck, dozing and waking and aware of a feeling that was akin to happiness. There seemed something of good omen in the reefed foresail, a sign of danger past and the end of hardship manfully endured. With drowsy eyes he watched an albatross floating serenely on the rolling swell, and he remembered its magical riding of the storm when the gales were blowing. It seemed to be enjoying the calm as much as he was.
About six bells there was a ripple along the water from the southwest as the wind came away from that quarter, and the sails filled sluggishly, heavy with frozen sleet. The breeze gathered strength rapidly, and the ship began to move slowly through the water, heading west by north on the port tack, which was near enough to her proper course to please the captain. The order was given to the man at the wheel: —
‘Full an’ by — an’ don’t let her luff.’
The wind increased by leaps, and at eight bells in the afternoon watch, when Davie and his mates went below, it was blowing a hard gale. The order came for all hands to have their supper at two bells, and an hour later the bosun opened the door of the port fo’c’sle violently and came in, slamming it behind him. Heavy seas were coming aboard again and spray swept the decks.
‘Say, lads,’ remarked the bosun, ‘the Skipper’s gonna drive her, and it’s gonna blow great guns. Once the sea gets up an’ she’s buckin’ into it there’ll be no livin’ for’ard here. So all hands lay aft on the poop.’
He slammed his way out again and repeated his message to the men of the starboard watch. All hands took tobacco, matches, and pipes and ran aft between seas to the poop, where they huddled on deck in the lee of the companion hatch and the cabin skylight, glad there was no sail to be taken in and hoping they would sight the Diego Ramirez before long and turn the ship’s head to the north for lower latitudes and long days of fine weather.
The wind rose almost to hurricane force, and they were afraid the foresail would be blown away, but the captain had made his decision and held grimly on. Davie crouched on the deck in the lee of the companion between Douglas and Timkips, watching the sea to leeward as it went hissing away from the plunging stern, and listening to the thunderous shocks from the bows. The ship was moving at a speed of three knots an hour, and as she met the oncoming seas her bows cut right through them. Massive seas fell aboard, filling the main deck from time to time, and as the long hours of the night went past Davie wondered how anything made by human hands could endure that terrible battering and stay afloat. One of the long thoughts that dwelt in his mind that night was concerned with the quality of man’s handiwork. A loose rivet or faulty plate in her bows would have foundered the ship and sent her crew adrift in open boats, if they could have launched ihem in that wild sea. Queer ideas came to him, lying huddled among the men, soaking wet and stiff with cold, but one seemed true enough — that good workmanship, by the faith it inspires, is the foundation of the world.
Some time before dawn there was a stir among the men, who were turning their hooded heads to look at the captain and the mate. Davie saw their heavy, slow-moving forms passing to the lee side of the poop as the first herald of dawn appeared. Their grave bearded faces fascinated him. These two men had toiled and suffered and learned and knew how to work a ship over these trackless wastes, meeting all dangers as they came and bringing their charge safely into harbor at the end of the long voyage. They were quiet, unassuming men, who did not boast of what they had done. Davie watched them, saw them suddenly stiffen to attention and gaze steadfastly at something away on the beam. The men rose quietly to their feet and searched to leeward to see what their officers were looking at.
There were ihree black rocks about five miles off, moving slowly astern. The seas charged down on them, struck at their bases, and leaped in spouting foam a hundred feet into the air. They glistened between seas with a black gleam, as savage and sullen as they had to be to withstand the merciless fury of such onslaught through the centuries. They were the Diego Ramirez, lying sixty miles southwest of Cape Horn. The men’s eyes brightened and their faces broke into smiles; their backs straightened and they glanced joyfully at each other. They were round the Horn.
The captain gave an order to the man at the wheel, who put the helm aport. The ship’s head fell away from the seas, and the mate swung round to the men.
‘Square the main yard!’ he roared.
They squared the yards and turned the ship’s head to the north, loosed the topgallants and set them, shook the reef out of the foresail and hauled the sheets aft. All hands went to breakfast at two bells; there was shouting with laughter, and jubilant swearing; and after breakfast they set the mainsail, the royals, and the jibs. With the wind on the port quarter every stitch of canvas was drawing, and the ship fled before it, leaping and rolling and singing with all her thousand voices.
Davie ran up to the fo’c’sle head to be alone, to watch the ship and listen to her song of victory. The pursuing seas came rolling up under her quarter, lifted her gently, rolled her easily to starboard and lowered her to port. They were no longer hissing monsters that battered her bows and swept her reeling decks, but friendly leviathans running a race with her. Sometimes they poured over her weather rail with a subdued purring roar like the sound of a low waterfall in a forest. Davie was thrilled and happy as he watched her flying to the north, saw the rolling seas glide along her rails and pass ahead. When her bows went down she dipped her bowsprit, and it came up next time with foamy spray streaming away in the wind.
Timkins came running up the ladder and started waving his arms in exuberant celebration. He looked at Davie with a wide grin which suddenly froze to a grimace of ferocious triumph as he faced astern and shook his extended fists at the flying scud, the wild sea, and the spirit of the Horn.
‘Blow, blast yer!’ he screamed.
‘ Blow, curse yer! Do yer damnedest, old Cape Stiff. Blow yer bloody ’ead off. The ’arder yer blows, the fahster she goes.’
They ran into sunny seas, and the ship drew slowly north. One morning at dawn a towboat picked them up outside the Golden Gate and towed them to their berth in the San Francisco docks. The long voyage was over, and the crew went ashore to gather at the British Consulate and be paid off.
The men came out of the office one by one, as they received their pay, and stood in groups about the sidewalk, excited by the possession of money. Released from the routine of ship’s discipline, they were restless and eager to enjoy themselves. Davie was the last to be paid off. He counted his money in the office, eighty-nine dollars and ten cents, and put it carefully into an inside pocket before joining the men outside.
‘ ’Ello, Davie,’ said Timkins. ‘Comin’ with us?’
‘No,’ Davie answered quietly. ’I must go to the post office first.’
The men glanced at him with varying degrees of interest as they turned and moved slowly toward the corner, where a street car was standing. Davie thought he would take the car and started toward it, but was halted by the facetious voice of the Londoner.
“Old on there, Davie. Wotcha thinkin’ about? A ride on a street car costs five cents in this ’ere kentry.’
Davie paused and considered swiftly. Would he have enough money for his need? Five cents might make a decisive difference, he concluded, and smiled at Timkins in his diffident fashion.
‘I believe I’ll walk,’ he remarked. He looked from one to the other of the men with whom he had spent the past six months in such close companionship. Douglas and Timkins, the only two he really liked, smiled at him, and the former came over and held his hand in a friendly grip.
‘Glad I’ve known you, Davie,’ he remarked in his cool, even voice. ‘Let me give you some advice. Don’t go to sea again. Stay in this country and take out citizenship papers. You’re the sort of man we want here. I wish you all the luck in the world, kid. So long.’
He turned away, and Davie felt a pang of regret as he returned the sailor’s word of farewell.
Timkins strolled over and wished him good luck in a surprisingly gentle voice.
‘Yer ’ave n’t minded my kiddin’, ’ave yer, Davie? Blimey, matey, I knows bloody well yer ’as a reason fer bein’ so tight with yer money.’
Davie’s reticence at this last moment was shattered as it had not been during all the voyage.
‘It’s for my mother,’ he said. ‘She’s ill.’
‘Yer mother,’ repeated Timkins softly. ‘I thort it wuz somethink like that. Gord bless ’er, Davie, an’ good luck to yer.’ He shook hands and they said, ‘So long.’
Davie started up Market Street, headed for the post office, while Timkins rejoined his companions and told them he had known all along that Davie was all right. His mother was ill, and it was for her sake he had been so tight with his money.
‘Come an’ have a drrink,’ invited Drummond, slightly ashamed, after Timkins’s explanation, that he had not been friendlier with Davie. They turned, laughing, and strolled away, a group of sailors ashore, childish, reckless, heroic, in search of whiskey and women, both easily found.
Davie stopped at a stationer’s to buy a sheet of paper and an envelope, which cost him five cents, and arrived at the post office perspiring from the walk in the hot sun. Finding an empty desk, he took possession of it and wrote a letter to his mother, part of which ran thus: —
We had fine weather most of the voyage. It was rough off the Horn, but of course that was to be expected. Iam sending you the amount of the fee the doctor demands to remove the cataracts from your eyes, and you wall not be blind. I am glad to be able to send you this, Mother dear.
He bought the money order when he had finished writing, sealed the letter, and sent it off by registered mail, then counted the money he had left. It amounted to eighty-nine cents.
As he swung out of the post office into the crowded street the pæan of joy in his heart brought a radiance to his bronzed young face and a starry gleam to his eyes. Women glanced at him kindly as he passed with his head up, on the way to find a job.
Thoughts of his mother went singing through his mind. She would not be blind. She still would see the beauty of the world, the dawn and the stars, the moon in the summer night, and the faces of those she loved. Something of restraint and privation she might still have to bear until he could send for her. These she had always known. But the light in her eyes would not be quenched.