The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 1
THE PRAYING SKIPPER
" BUT I'm not going to stand for this sort of thing," angrily protested young Valentine as he shoved the letter at Port Captain Graham of the Palmetto Line. "The old man may be as good a sailor as you say he is, but it's high time we set him ashore on a half-pay pension. Why, he's making our service ridiculous. Read it out to Mr. Holmes."
The Port Captain fidgeted and awkwardly wiped his glasses, for the task was unwelcome:
Yours as ever,
Young Mr. Valentine explained to the surprised officials:
"The signer is an old college friend of mine, man of a great deal of influence here in New York, and he gives the line and its biggest, newest ship this kind of a black eye. And I have heard other rumors to the same effect. Now I want an explanation from both you gentlemen. You know all about Captain Jesse Kendrick of the Suwannee, and it's your business to report such idiotic performances. If you have been shielding a dottering old ass, who is unfit to go to sea any longer, the sooner the thing is sifted to the bottom the better."
Port Captain Graham flushed and twisted his white mustache with a fist like an oaken billet. He swallowed hard as if trying to keep his rising steam under control, and replied with a catch in his deep voice:
"Mr. Valentine, I've been with the Palmetto Line going on thirty years, from the time when your father bought the first old side-wheeler that flew the house flag. Jesse Kendrick was third under me in my first command and I know him inside out. A finer sailor and a better man never rounded Hatteras. Are you going to blackguard the ranking skipper afloat in your service because of a flimsy complaint like that, without calling the old man up to the office? Doesn't he get a hearing? Why, you've just now waltzed into this company like a boy with a lot of toy steamboats to play with, after loafing abroad in a muck of luxury ever since you left your college. You've never even clapped eyes on Captain Kendrick."
Mr. Holmes, the General Manager, was speaking before Mr. Valentine could make heated reply. He was largely office bred, and less outspoken than the rugged Port Captain:
"As far as his religion goes, we know that Captain Kendrick doesn't drink a drop, and that he won't ship anything but sober men. And your father had reason to send the old man a good many letters of commendation in his time. Shall I 'phone to the dock for Captain Kendrick? He sails this afternoon."
"You'll do nothing of the kind," snarled Valentine. "I'll do my own investigating this time, because you are a bunch of three old pals, do you see?"
"But you're not going to censure him right off the reel? Good God! it would break the old man's heart," exclaimed the Port Captain, leaning forward in a bluster of indignation. "I'll bet the morals of your friend, Jim What's-his-name, need investigatin' a damn sight more than the righteousness of Jesse Kendrick."
Mr. Valentine snapped back, but with weakening assurance:
"If you can't be civil, Captain Graham, there will be more than one reprimand in this day's work. I am the owner ashore, and I propose to be the boss at sea. I'll think it over, and if I want any more of your advice, I'll send for you. Good-morning."
He went into an inner office and closed the door. The Port Captain glared at the barrier, and growled as he trudged reluctantly into the outer hall, arm in arm with the General Manager.
"That spindle-shouldered, under-engined young cub as the make-believe boss of the Palmetto Line! What do you think of it, Holmes? Dyin' must have come hard to his dad when he took a last squint at the heir to the business. This one surely needs some of Jesse Kendrick's spare prayers."
"The young Valentine is cock of the walk," said the General Manager slowly. "But the bantam was crowing to show his authority this time. Anyhow, he said he would think it over, and that means he'll cool off. Don't say anything to Kendrick about it. No use of discounting trouble that may never come."
But the two men had small acquaintance with the methods of young Mr. Valentine. Without letting go his purpose, he had appeared to give way, because he shrunk from pitting his will against this masterful Port Captain, who made him feel like a house of cards in a big wind. It was not inconceivable that this overbearing old monster might lay him across his knee and spank him in the white heat of a dispute. When he heard the two veterans depart, the new-fledged owner turned to his stenographer:
"Please take a letter to Captain Kendrick and mail it to catch him at New Orleans. I don't want him storming in here to-day."
The gray hair of the stenographer had been a bonny brown when she entered the employ of the Palmetto Line. As her pencil chased his words down the pages of her notebook, she glanced up with undisguised amazement, and dared to comment when her task was done:
"Please pardon me, but are you sure you mean Captain Kendrick of the Suwannee? You see, I have sailed with him on several vacation trips. When he leads the services on board, I think it is because the passengers like to hear him talk; such manly, honest talk about the faith he lives day by day. He reminds you of some Old Testament patriarch."
"Old Testament patriarchs are out of date," said Mr. Valentine with evident irritation. "Is there a conspiracy to boom the stock of this senile old geezer? Religion is all right for you women. I am going South in my private car next week, and by Jove, I will just come home on the Suwannee and look the situation over for myself. Mum's the word. And I don't want any more of my friends to be guying me about running a marine Sunday-school with a sea-parson in charge. That letter ought to choke him off coming back."
A fortnight later the Suwannee was steaming across the sapphire Gulf. Before her bow flying-fish skittered and splashed like flights of shrapnel bullets, on deck sailors were stretching awnings fore and aft, and wind-sails bellied in the open hatches. Men in flannels and women in trim, white freshness leaned along the rail and watched the sparkling play of color overside. There was the air of a yachting cruise in these pleasant aspects of the day's routine, yet the season was the dead of winter, and the Suwannee was hurrying as fast as twin screws could drive her toward bitter latitudes.
On the bridge walked to and fro, with a slightly limping gait, a man of an unusual presence. Those who looked up at him from the deck noted his uncommon height and breadth, and the white beard that swept almost to his waist. Nearer vision was needed to know the seamed yet mobile face, and the gray eye that held an eager light as of strong emotions continually burning. When he halted to speak to his first officer, his voice was sweet and vibrant:
"I am going below for a little while, Mr. Parlin. Call me when you've run down your course."
Captain Kendrick went into his room just abaft the wheelhouse, and picked up from his desk a typewritten letter that showed marks of much handling. He read it slowly, and his lip quivered as it had done with each of many previous readings. Seating himself upon the edge of the couch, he said aloud little fragments of the letter, taken here and there without sequence:
"Astonishing behavior … guilty of annoyance … serious complaints … ridiculous religious display … prime of usefulness past … evidently ripe for retirement…."
The letter fell to the floor unheeded, as there came into his eyes a look of impassioned intensity that was focused ever so far beyond the walls of this little sea-cabin. He was on his knees and his head was in his hands as he murmured:
"Cast me not off in the time of old age, forsake me not when my strength faileth.… Thy way is in the sea, and Thy path in the great waters.… I said I will keep my mouth with a bridle while the wicked are before me. But it is also written that evening and morning and at noon will I pray and cry aloud and He shall hear my voice…. They have prepared a net for my steps, my heart is bowed down…. But Thou hast a mighty arm, strong is Thy hand and high is Thy right hand.…"
While Captain Kendrick was voicing his troubles and his consolations in words wondrously framed by another strong man long ago, the purser of the Suwannee was sought out by Arthur Valentine, whose manner held a trace of uneasiness. He would not have confessed it, but far back in the young ship-owner's head was the glimmering notion that a terrier might be snapping at a mastiff. Was this imposing figure on the bridge the "dottering ass" to whom he had smartly dashed off his first official reprimand, gloating in the chance to test the sweep of his new authority? But this suspicion now shaped itself only in a growing fear lest he be discovered in such uncomfortably close quarters with Captain Jesse Kendrick. Mr. Valentine closed the door of the purser's room and set that worthy officer's teeth on edge by remarking:
"Fine morning. I say, you needn't bother to make any special point of seating me at the captain's table. Fact is, I don't want to be bored. Just put me over at your table, will you? And please tell nobody who I am. I want to look around a bit. The captain doesn't know that I'm on board, I take it, or he would have been showing me some troublesome attentions. So you need say nothing to him about it. Just see that my name is rubbed off his copy of the passenger list."
The purser disentangled himself from a staggering heap of cargo manifests, and emphasized his reply with a wave of an inky finger:
"All right, Mr. Valentine, if those are your orders, but you miss your guess if you think our skipper is going to run after you or any other passenger. He ain't that kind. But sub rosy you go and as far as you like, till further notice."
Slightly ruffled, Mr. Valentine sauntered on deck, where he fell in with Second-Officer Peter Carr, who proved to be contrastingly voluble and cheerful. Before the passenger could ask certain questions that were in his mind, Mr. Carr flourished an arm seaward, and began:
"Passin' that bark yonder reminds me of a voyage I sailed as bos'n in the old packet Guiding Star, out o' Liverpool for Sydney. We was carryin' two hunderd Irish girls as immygrants, an' soon after we crossed the Line they mutinied 'cause we refused to give 'em curlin' irons, an' let 'em waltz with the sailors every night an' twice on Sunday. 'Bout four bells of the middle watch pourin' out o' the hatches they come like a consolidated female explosion. I was in th' waist, an' fust I knowed them millions of infuriated young angels surged straight at poor Peter Carr. Sez I to myself, here's too much of a good thing for once, an' with that I makes a flyin' scoot an' scrambles aloft like a cat with a bunch o' firecrackers belayed to its spanker boom. Sw-o-o-o-s-h, the rustle of them billion o' skirts is like the sound of a nor'easter. Wh-e-e-e-e, them shrieks of disapp'inted rage is still ringin' in my ears. I seen the poor old skipper poke his head out o' the companionway, an' so help me, before he had time to say——"
Mr. Carr stopped abruptly and his animated countenance froze in horror as he saw Captain Kendrick wave a beckoning hand from far forward.
"He's got me again," muttered the mate, as he obeyed the summons and was seen to follow the cause of his panic into the captain's room.
"Sit down, Mr. Carr," said Captain Kendrick, with a menacing note in his voice. "You have broken your solemn promise made to me last voyage. Those same old gestures told me you were climbing the shrouds of the Guiding Star again. How often have I got to tell you that the Guiding Star packet foundered a dozen years before you went to sea? You soft-shelled coaster, you wouldn't know the equator if it flew up and hit you in the nose. 'When you were crossing the Line'-lies, all lies!"
Peter Carr rubbed his red head and looked sheepish. "Right you are, sir. I forgot, sir," he stammered. "But I'm improvin'. I can feel it workin'."
"It isn't only your speech and conduct that need overhauling," commented Captain Kendrick severely, as he dug his two fists into his beard and towered over the contrite mate. "These things are signs of an inward state of spiritual rottenness, and I intend to hammer the blessed truth into you as long as we are shipmates. Look at me. Am I a worse sailor for trying to be what your mother on Cape Cod prayed you might grow into, when she used to tuck you up in bed?"
Mr. Carr was as earnest as ever in his turbulent career as he responded:
"I'll keep in mind what you say, sir. If all the people that flies church colors was like you, a —— —— sight more of 'em 'ud practice what they preach. Whoa, Bill, I didn't mean to rip out them naughty words. I swear I didn't, sir."
The old man sighed:
"You're still in the mire. But I'm not done with you. I'll have you on your knees yet, Peter Carr."
As the mate rolled forward he muttered:
"He's sometimes kind of wearin', but he means well. An' he's gettin' me so tame I'll be eatin' out of his hand before long."
Arthur Valentine was hovering within earshot, and he halted the solemn-faced officer with:
"Sorry you couldn't finish that bully yarn of the Guiding Star. Anything the matter? How did you escape from the two hundred angry ladies?"
Mr. Carr beamed with animation as he hastened to reply: "Well, as I was sayin', the poor old skipper of her stuck his head on deck, an' before he could— Oh, d— Ouch, excuse me. I bit my tongue. I mean, well, I never did get down out of that riggin', and that's the end of the yarn. Can't explain. No time to talk now."
Valentine was puzzled, and laid a hand on the sleeve of the fleeing mate:
"What the dickens ails you? Why can't you finish that yarn?"
Mr. Carr whipped round and shouted with a noble impulse:
"I ain't goin' to lie again, so help me. The captain's been laborin' with my poor sin-streaked soul, and I passed the word to steer by his sailin' chart. I've suffered enough without bein' keel-hauled any more about it."
"Beg pardon," smiled Valentine. "Now I see the joke. The good old man and the wandering boy. How nice of him. Perhaps he will pray for me if I send up a card. Is he often taken that way?"
"Pretty regular," grinned the mate as he made good his retreat.
"Was I right? Well, rather," thought Valentine. "It's time I took hold of things. If we should run into a storm, the old duffer would be on his knees praying for good weather and let the ship go to pot."
Later in the day a notice posted in the "social hall" caught his roving eye:
"To-morrow (Sunday) divine service will be held in the main saloon at ten o'clock. As is customary in steamers of this line when there is no clergyman among the passengers, the captain will be in charge of this service."
Four bells on Sunday morning found the saloon half filled with voyagers, most of whom looked as if church-going was their custom. Sunlight flooded through the open ports and fretted the floor with dancing patterns as the steamer rolled lazily with the weight of the breathing sea. A warm wind gushed under the skylights and brought with it the thankful twitter of a little brown land-bird blown into the rigging over night. If ever worship were meet at sea, a singular aptness was in the peace and brightness of this place.
A hymn was sung and the captain read the morning service from the prayer-book. Then he threw back his shoulders without knowing that he did so, until the blue uniform coat stretched very taut across his bulky chest, and his corded hand gripped a small Bible that lay before him. Something in his pose told those of quick intuition that big emotions were hard held. They knew not why, but this hoary pillar of a man was tugging at their sympathies even before he began to speak, at first frowningly, then with a gathering light in his rugged face:
"From time to time I have tried to make these shipboard services a little more than the routine calls for. It was my way of thinking that when the Lord has led a man up out of the pit, and planted his feet on the Rock, he ought not to be ashamed of it. Perhaps I have had pride in my redemption. But it seemed to me a wonderful thing that a wicked, drunken young sailor, with no mother and no home, should be brought up with a round turn, as by a miracle of grace; that like a great light shining on the deep waters, the new hope of a better, manlier life came to him; and that he found the peace that passeth all understanding. Since then, some men and women have told me that they remembered sailing with me long after the voyage was done.
"Now I can speak no more of these things. This may be my last voyage, and if I were to talk to you out of the fullness of my heart it would be wrong. For the Book says, 'servants obey your masters,' and I am still a servant, wearing a servant's livery, and I have been proud to wear it for a good many years. I can't say any more. Several passengers asked me to give a talk in connection with the morning's service, and I want them to know that in disappointing them, my wishes have been overruled. Let us all thank God for fair weather in a closing hymn."
Arthur Valentine left the saloon fairly well pleased with himself, but inwardly recording one objection:
"He's pretty well muzzled, but I wrote him to cut out all his religious palaver in public, and I won't stand for any more of this nonsense of playing the martyr. That goes."
While idling forward after lunch, he met the first-officer coming off watch. Mischievous fortune thus brought together a young man with an axe to grind and a soured elder with a grievance.
"So the captain is ready to stay ashore," observed Valentine after a few greeting commonplaces. "Did you hear his queer speech this morning? I wonder what he was driving at? A passenger can't help being curious to know."
Mr. Parlin was a ripe and ruddy picture of a mariner, passing as heartily frank of speech except among those who knew him well. A lurking notion that he had seen this young man in New York was somehow coupled in his mind with the company's head offices, where an errand had called him before leaving that port. As he studied the passenger before replying, his glance was drawn to the gun-metal cigarette case, casually produced, whose face bore in gold outline the initials "A. H. V." Mr. Parlin was not dull witted. These letters stood for the name of the "old man's son."
The first-officer became inwardly alert as he said: "Well, Captain Kendrick is getting old, and he hasn't been right since he was smashed up so bad three years ago."
"How smashed?" asked Valentine eagerly.
"Got washed into the scuppers of the Juanita. They found him jammed under a boat with his timbers busted to smithereens. You may have noticed that he walks with a list to port."
"He didn't break his head, did he?" and Valentine tapped his forehead with a significant finger.
"Well, that's not for me, to say," and Mr. Parlin hesitated, with a flutter of an eyelid; "but he has his hobby, and he sets all the sail it'll carry. You may have noticed it this morning. But he was going it very easy then."
"I'd have had my ship long before this," continued Mr. Parlin, "if the old man hadn't put a black mark on my record in the main office. Now that he talks of going out of the line, there's no harm in my sayin' that if I'd flopped on my knees and spouted psalms instead of sticking to my duties, it would be Captain Parlin by now. Excuse me. I have some work on."
Valentine said to himself as he watched the burly, bow-legged figure lumber toward a main-deck ladder:
"Now, there's a proper sailor for you! And this captain—pshaw, he makes me sick."
At the same time Mr. Parlin was thinking:
"Neatly done. I put a nail in the old cuss's coffin."
Three days passed before Captain Kendrick made a social appearance on the after deck. His old friends among the passengers welcomed his lavish fund of stories, some of them a trifle heavy, but all delivered with beaming good nature, and such thunderous sallies of laughter as wagged the white beard until his audience joined in from sheer sympathy. Valentine hung on the outskirts for a little while and then preferred to walk the deck. He felt irritation and disgust, partly because he thought he ought to be holding the center of the stage, and regretting that expediency should force him to travel incognito. Wouldn't these silly folk open their eyes if they knew how easily he, the owner, could lay this childish old nuisance of a skipper on the shelf? And he chafed the more because the poison so deftly administered by the first mate was working to confirm all his headlong suspicions.
Scowling at the jolly company as he passed them, Valentine caught a new note of earnestness in the captain's voice and stopped to listen:
"It may not be wrong after all, now that you are all urging me, and I will cut it short. God has been very good to me, and in my poor way I try to bear witness. And you may understand when I tell you what happened in '67 when I was battering around the fo'ksle of a deep-water ship out of Baltimore. Never will I forget the night when——"
The words produced an extraordinary effect upon Valentine. Blind anger seized him. He could see nothing else than that the captain was defying his written order, the passengers abetting him, and the whole group making a mockery of his authoritative judgment. He brushed in among the listeners, and shouted in a gusty treble:
"This has got to stop, I tell you. What did I write you, Captain Kendrick, about all this religious tommy-rot? I'll show you whose orders go on this ship."
The company scattered as if a bomb had lit in the midst of it as Captain Kendrick took two strides, whipped out a long arm and grasped Valentine by the shoulder:
"No man gives me orders on the deck of my ship at sea. Do you want to go below in irons? Who are——"
"My name is A. H. Valentine, and I threatened to kick you out of your berth two weeks ago, and you know it," screamed the struggling young man. "Turn me loose, I tell you. Pension be hanged. Now you can go ashore and rot. I own this ship and a dozen like her. I'll put the first officer in command to-day, and it's high time, too. He deserves it, and I know why he lost his promotion."
"I don't care if you're the Emperor of Chiny. Put a stopper on that tongue of yours, or—" Captain Kendrick checked his hot words and looked at the agitated young man like a pitying father. "You don't know any better, do you? We'll talk it all over ashore. But not at sea, understand—not at sea."
Captain Kendrick walked slowly toward his room without looking back, and sent word for Mr. Parlin to come to him at once. The mate breezed in with hearty salutation, but his high color paled a little when he looked squarely at the captain's flinty face.
"Stand on your two feet like a man, Mr. Parlin, for you're before your commander. Have you been telling lies to a passenger named Valentine?"
"Didn't know Mr. Valentine was aboard, sir. Wouldn't know him if he was sitting there in your chair. Are you trying to insult me?"
"Could I insult a slush-bucket?" thundered the captain. "You have been talking to Mr. Valentine. Don't spit out the lie that's on the tip of your tongue. Two years ago, I found you asleep on watch. At other times you have been slack and inefficient. I reported you every time. That's why you've seen three mates go over your head and get their ships. If I'd had my way you'd have been disrated or thrown on the beach. But you worked wires ashore, you harpooned me in the back, and you held your berth instead of being kicked out for a better man."
The mate's face was purple as he stammered:
"I haven't said anything against you, sir."
"If you're trying to work up into the wind with Mr. Valentine, you wait until you get ashore," growled the captain. "This is my ship until she docks. You can't say I ever tried to convert you to God. He doesn't want jelly-fish. He wants men."
Driven into a corner, the mate tried to take the aggressive in a burst of defiance:
"I guess that what Mr. Valentine says goes. I'll see that he hears my side of the case before sundown."
Mr. Parlin had gone too far, and he knew it before he had bitten off his empty words. Captain Kendrick jumped to his feet, and his beard was pushed within an inch of Mr. Parlin's bulbous nose:
"You're disrated now. Mr. Carr takes your berth until we make port. Get for'ard, you mutinous loafer."
"Get nothin'!" yelled Mr. Parlin. "I'm going aft to see the real boss."
Two hairy hands clamped down on his shoulders, and he was swung clear of the deck. Then his heavily shod toes beat an intermittent tattoo over the sill and along the planks, as he was hauled and shoved toward his own room. The captain shifted his burden until the mate was tucked under one arm, breathless, impotent, trickling juicy curses. He was dumped inside and heard the heavy storm-door slam and the click of a turning key before he could heave himself to his feet and hammer the barricade in useless rage until his fists bled.
Captain Kendrick had no more time to bother with such trifles as the outbreak of Valentine. Before this day had darkened the sky turned a dirty yellow, and the weight of the wind was not enough to account for the greasy, sluggish roll of the sea. The barometer needle slid unwaveringly toward the danger point, and after some uncertain shifting, the wind hauled to the northeast and grew steadily colder. Stripped of all superfluous gear on deck, the Suwannee was licked into fighting trim, gaunt, streaming and naked. The weeping drizzle that fogged the sky line changed to sleet, and soon after dusk came blinding snow with a great fury of wind.
When the captain faced the storm on his quivering bridge, he felt as if all breath and warmth were instantly blown out of him. No fleecy snowflakes these, but hooting volleys of icy shot, incessantly delivered. He groped along the canvased rail in a choking fight for breath until he found Mr. Carr. They gasped and flinched as they vainly tried to peer into the whirling smother.
The sea rose with incredible swiftness. Within the hour, the Suwannee could no longer be held on her course. Yawing wildly whenever a vicious onset of the sea smashed against her quarter and toppled on deck, the ship was brought round and hove to, dead into it. Then the racing of her screws shook her until it seemed as if the engines would tear her hull apart, and speed was slowed as much as the captain dared.
Mr. Parlin was still locked in his stateroom, and as the deep-laden Suwannee wrestled with the blizzard, Captain Kendrick argued in his mind whether the mutinous officer should be released at a time when all hands were sorely needed. The third officer had not been long enough promoted to shoulder any grave responsibility. In such a night as this, whose menace was hourly increasing, the vital issue was to safeguard the ship. But the captain's manhood rebelled against a compromise with his deed of clean-cut justice. And rankling in his heart was a damnable phrase, "prime of usefulness is past." It helped to give him the strength of two, now that the test had come, and he decided to fight it through with Peter Carr.
Before midnight the cold was so benumbing and deadly, without chance of respite, that freezing fast to the rail to which they clung was a fate that threatened master and mate. Each begged the other to seek a little warmth and shelter, and their indomitable wills were deadlocked time and again. At length the captain put it as a most emphatic command, and fairly hustled Peter Carr down the steps to the steam-heated wheel-house. When the mate returned, hot with coffee and protestations that the captain take a turn below, the old man refused with a passionate gesture of finality.
Although he had striven to bank the fires of resentment, his thoughts burned like coals that callow youth, sitting in judgment, should have flung aside his faith and works together like so much trash. But never for a moment did such introspections relax his alert understanding of every symptom of the laboring tussle between ship and sea. So far she had come unhurt. Now, once, as she climbed wearily and hung for an instant like a giant see-saw, Captain Kendrick became tensely expectant as he felt through the planking a strange jarring break, somewhere down in her vitals.
Then, instead of splendidly crashing down the long slope into the hidden wrath of water, the Suwannee began to swing broadside as if on a pivot. The wild impulse was unchecked, even as her bow slanted into the tumbling barrier, and heaving far down to port, she rolled helpless and exposed, as a bewildered boxer drops the guard that shields his jaw from the knock-out blow.
"Hard over, hard over," yelled the captain down the tube to an empty wheel-house, for a pallid quartermaster darted from within, and scrambled to the bridge, shouting:
"She won't steer, —— —— her, she won't steer. The gear has carried away below."
With one look to windward, the captain crawled to the engine-room indicator and sent clamoring signals to reverse the port and jam full speed ahead with the starboard screw. But before the Suwannee could feel the altered drive of her engines, so huge a sea raced over her lurching bow that the port side of the bridge crumpled under the attack like a wire bird-cage smashed with a club. Roaring aft, the gray flood ripped a string of boats from their lashings. It left their fragments absurdly dangling from the twisted davits, and poured through the cabin skylights, whose strength collapsed like pasteboard.
Peter Carr had seen the danger in time to shout a warning as he fled to the starboard end of the bridge. On top of him came the captain, washed along in a tangle of splintered oak and canvas. The mate crawled from beneath and looked for the quartermaster. A sodden bundle of oil-skins was doubled around a stanchion almost at his feet, and life was gone from the battered features. Instinctively glancing seaward, the mate noted that the Suwannee had responded to the send of her screws, and was veering now to port. He signaled to ease her, and as she headed into it again, he made a rush and dragged the skipper clear. The sleeted beard was matted with blood, but the old man stirred and opened his eyes.
"We've got to nurse her along with the engines," he muttered brokenly. "Thank God for twin screws. Stand by the indicator. Sing down for hands to clear the wreckage, and overhaul the steering-gear. It felt to me like the rudder went at the pintles. But have 'em man the hand-wheel aft."
He wiped the blood from his eyes, and strove to get on his feet. One leg gave way, and he hauled himself up by gripping what was left of the rail.
"It's gone back on me again," he groaned, "but it wasn't much of a leg at best. Lend a hand, and do as I tell ye."
Peter Carr passed a lashing around the skipper's waist, and so made him fast to the steel pillar of the engine-room indicator. Now began the infinitely wary coaxing of the ship to face the storm, now with a thrust of her port screw, again with a kick of her starboard screw. It was thus she must be steered, for word came up that there was no mending the damage this side of port. The mate was afraid to take over the task of keeping the ship headed into the storm, for this was his first experience in a twin-screw steamer, yet he was as much afraid that the skipper might die if he left him where he was.
The ship fought to wrest herself free from this shifting grip, she seemed eager to slay herself by swinging to take the seas abeam, but the man whose face and beard were dappled with blotches of crimson held her hove to, as if his soul had pervaded her clanking depths. When Peter Carr implored him to have his hurts cared for, the captain answered with such shattered murmurings as these, for the cold and the pain were biting into his brain:
"But ye shall die like men, and fall like one of the princes…. Let not the water-flood overflow me, neither let the deep swallow me up…. Oh, spare me that I may recover strength before I go hence and be no more…. Then they cried unto the Lord in their trouble, and He saved them out of their distress.…"
Peter Carr was a much younger man, and the violence of his exertions had so warmed his blood that he had much strength left in him. Now and then he tugged at the captain's arm, shouted in his ear, tried to lift him, and the third officer, who had come from the task of mending matters on deck, joined the heroic struggle. The captain awoke to chide them as if they were impatient boys, but his eyes saw only the swirling curtain of snow ahead and the great seas he must meet in their teeth. Suddenly he tried to stand erect, and shouted as he swayed:
"Vessel dead ahead."
With the words, he sent a signal to his engine-room, and the Suwannee shouldered the merest trifle off to port just as a great gray mass slid past, so close that the watchers smelled a whiff of steam. The blackness was beginning to fade out of the storm, day was breaking, and they glimpsed alongside a cluster of jackies toiling in flooding seas at hawsers lashed round two great turret guns. More than ever convinced by this escape that his eyes were needed on the bridge, Captain Kendrick stayed steadfast in his purpose. The two officers felt awe as they looked at him, that he should have sensed, where their eyes could not see, the danger they had shaved by a hair's breadth. Sometimes now his head fell forward, but the hand on the indicator lever was ever nervously alive to feel the ship and the raving seas, and he was snatching her from death, inch by inch and hour by hour.
In the early hours of the storm, Arthur Valentine was battering like a shuttle-cock between the sides of his berth, sicker in mind than in body, for manifold terrors had come to prey upon him. Without confidence in the captain of the ship, he felt that his own cowardice was responsible for failure to act when the issue had been almost within his grasp. Through the dragging hours, as the ship cried aloud in every racking beam and rivet, or quaked as if her rearing bows had rammed a rock, Valentine convinced himself that the captain would not have dared refuse him if he had faced it out and insisted that the first officer take command.
"Don't I own the steamer?" he groaned. "Can't a man do what he pleases with his own property? And I let myself be bluffed out like a whipped pup. Only a lunatic would have defied me. Of course he's tucked away in a corner trying to pray down a storm like this. What did Carr tell me? What did Parlin say?"
On the heels of these emotions came the dreadful instant when the Suwannee took aboard the sea that swept her bridge. Valentine was flung out of his berth to the floor in a bruised heap, and heard the crash of glass and the riot of water which tumbled solid into the saloon outside his room. Before he could get footing his room was awash, and floating luggage knocked him this way and that. He crawled outside and collided with a half-clad man who was wringing his hands as he wailed:
"Save yourself. We're sinking. Look at the whole Atlantic Ocean in here."
"What's the matter? What's happened?" gasped Valentine.
"What's happened? I heard the captain had killed the first officer, or strung him up, or something awful. And now there surely is hell to pay. Why don't somebody come to our rescue?"
What passed with him for duty, even the high tide of heroic impulse in his whole life, impelled Valentine to struggle up the stairway to the "social hall" on the deck above. He believed that the risk of being washed overboard was very great, he was almost certain the crazy captain would knock him down or shoot him, but he was braced ready to meet these things. It was a desperate situation demanding a desperate remedy. He felt vague admiration and pity for himself, as he made ready for the plunge on deck. But a dripping sailor barred the way.
"I'm willing to run the risk," protested the hero. "It's my duty to save the ship. She belongs to me."
"So does Cape Horn an' the Statue of Liberty," returned the seaman soothingly. "But you don't want to play with 'em now. They'll keep all right. Nobody goes on deck. Them's orders. Just sit down an' play you're a train of cars. It's lots of fun, an' it's safe an' dry."
Valentine tried to pass him and was thrust back so violently that he fell upon a comatose passenger stretched on a settee. This victim sputtered feeble protest and other voices were raised. Valentine noticed now that several men and women were huddled in this corner of the deck-house, fled from the desolation below stairs. One of them screamed above the clamor of the wind:
"The ship is all smashed to pieces and nobody knows what to do next."
"I am going to get forward somehow, and put the first officer in command, if he's alive," cried Valentine. "It's life or death for all of us, and my word must go. Doesn't this fool sailor know who I am?"
Alas, these shivering refugees scented a new alarm. The poor young man had gone mad with fright, and they, too, tried to soothe him, while a woman of them sobbingly implored the sailor to take him away before he became violent. Valentine cursed them all, and clawed his way down the hand-rail to the saloon to seek some other exit. The way forward was blocked by savage men dragging tarpaulins, and they kicked him out of their path when he would argue with them. He splashed back and forth, like a rat in a trap, falling against bulk-heads and furniture, or pitched clear off his feet, until, worn out, he slunk back in sullen silence up among the little company in the deck-house who waited for they knew not what.
So much of Valentine's purpose had been hammered out of him that nausea resumed its sway, and he clung to a cushion, helpless through interminable hours. When he was able to pull himself together and make feeble effort, it seemed as if the pitching of the steamer were less terrifying, and through an after-port the daylight gleamed. He dragged himself to it, and caught a glimpse of somber sea and sky. The blizzard had passed.
Then strong hands were thumping on the outer door, and a steward tugged at the inside fastenings. In a flurry of spray three burden-bearers staggered into the room, between them a great limp bulk in oil-skins, whose face was hidden by a sou'wester. As the seamen paused to veer ever so gently around the corner of the hallway, Valentine went close to the third officer who led the way, and said with a novel timidity in his voice:
"I am Mr. Valentine, owner of the line. Can you tell me what has happened, please?"
"It's the skipper—frozen up, busted up, dyin' it looks to me, sir," was the husky response. "He's brought her through the blow lone-handed. I never seen another man afloat as could ha' done the trick he did."
The young man trailed after the stumbling procession which turned into a large stateroom aft. Before swift hands had removed the boots and outer garments, a physician from among the passengers was busy with hot water and bandages. The Irish stewardess was weeping as she tried to help. They paid no heed to Valentine, who returned to the doorway as often as he was jostled to one side.
The three seamen huddled in the passage talked softly among themselves, and Valentine heard:
"I tink he give der first mate vat vas comin' to him, eh? Und if der skipper's room vas flooded out, den Mister Parlin must been sloshin' round mit der door gelocked, most drownded. Goot enough."
"It's sure all right if the old man done it. An' him with two bum legs to start with, buckin' her through last night. Him gettin' smashed galley-west, rudder busted—Hell's Delight! what a mess! He looked as if he was all in when we pried him loose from them slings that was holdin' him up."
"Ask the doc if he can pull him through, will you?"
Valentine tiptoed in, as the doctor whispered with a warning gesture:
"I think so. His head needs a good many stitches, and there is an ankle to set and some ribs to mend. But he will take a lot of killing yet. Come, men, you must clear out of the hall. He will be coming to presently."
What Valentine heard was mightily reinforced by that which he saw with eyes that were misty and troubled. Before him lay such grim reality of duty done as the shallows of his life had never touched. Groping in a welter of new thoughts, he made his way to the deck and went forward as far as he dared, amazed at sight of the havoc wrought overnight. Perched on his wrecked bridge the figure of Peter Carr swung against the brightening sky. He had learned who Valentine was, and called down:
"We'll work her up to Sandy Hook without any blisterin' salvage bills, sir. There's a few of us left."
"And these are the kind of men I was going to stand on their heads," said Valentine to himself, as he clambered up and asked many eager questions. Nor was Peter Carr at all backward in painting with vivid word and gesture the story of the night, down to a parting shaft of crafty comment:
"And there's them that thinks the old man is a softy an' ought to be knittin' tidies in a home for derelict seafarin' men."
Restlessly seeking the captain's stateroom again and again, Valentine was denied admittance until late in the afternoon. When the doctor let him in, the old man opened his eyes and his weather-scarred face lightened with a kindly gleam of recognition. Valentine flushed and began hurried speech:
"I hope you'll forget that letter…. Is there anything I can do?… If you want to go to sea again, or if you don't, or whatever else——"
The doctor raised a silencing finger. Valentine bent over to stroke a bandaged hand which moved on the blanket just enough to pat his with a little parental caress. The doctor nudged Valentine to withdraw, as the captain whispered drowsily:
"All-l's well…. You didn't know any better, did you?… So He bringeth them into their desired haven."