The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 4
THE LAST PILOT SCHOONER
YOUNG James Arbuthnot Wilson slipped into the Standard building with an uneasy air as if he were vaguely on the defensive. Six months of work in the "City Department" had not rid him of the feeling of a cat in a strange garret. The veterans of the staff were rather pleased that this should be the attitude common among young reporters. It showed that the office machine was geared to high tension when every man, short of five years' service, was thankful to find his "job" had not slid from under him between two days.
Wilson could recall no specific warnings that his head was in peril. His activities had been too inconspicuous to merit the dignity of official notice of any kind. He had faithfully followed his foot-sore round of minor police courts, hospitals, one-alarm fires, and dreary public meetings, to have his copy jammed as scanty paragraphs under the head of "City Jottings." A "story" filling a third of a column had marked his one red-letter day on the Standard.
Each afternoon, at one o'clock, he hurried to his pigeon-hole in the row of letter-boxes by the city editor's door, his heart thumping to this sense of intangible fear, and with it pulsing the foolish hope of a "big assignment." Some day they must give him a chance, and he would show them whether or not he could handle something worth while. But the flame of hope was low on this dull day of June as Wilson unlocked his box and tore open the yellow envelope on which his name was scrawled.
He whistled in blank amazement as he followed an unfamiliar hand down to the managing editor's signature. The youngster's face flushed and his fingers twittered as he turned sharply to see if the loungers at their desks had noted his agitation. Then he stole into the hall and re-read, with his lips moving as if he were spelling out the words:
Dear Mr. Wilson: You have been pegging away without any let-up for three months and your work has been excellent. Here is an easy assignment as a reward of merit. It will give you a pleasant outing, and us a good page story for the Sunday sheet. The enclosed clipping from to-day's paper will give you the idea. The art department will have a snap-shot camera waiting for you. Our Ship-News man made arrangements this morning for you to be met and taken aboard. The one-forty train from Broad Street Station will take you through to Lewes and the Breakwater. To save time I enclose some expense money. Try to be back on Thursday. This will give you three days at sea. We want plenty of rattling description and human interest, with local color ad lib. Good luck.
"Oh, there must be some mistake," gasped young Wilson. "A page Sunday story? A whole page? My work has been excellent? The managing editor has been following it? Why, I didn't suppose he knew me by sight. I can't believe it."
Befogged with hopes and fears, he turned back to the door of the city editor's room.
"He's just gone out to lunch with the managing editor," volunteered the day assistant. "No, I don't know where they went. Said they'd be back about two-thirty."
Wilson looked at the office clock. If he would catch the one-forty train for Lewes there was no leeway for hesitation. He started toward the elevator, then halted to read the clipping, which might throw some light upon this staggering manifesto:
THE LAST PILOT SCHOONER
The new steam pilot-boat will go into commission off the Delaware Capes early next week. This change from sail to steam is another blow at the romance of blue water. Six of the eight trim schooners of the Delaware fleet have already been dismantled, not only the Albatross, Number One is cruising on the station. She will be laid up as soon as the steamer is ready to put the pilots aboard incoming vessels. Every ocean voyager will regret the passing of the pilot schooner. These stormy petrels among sailing craft have been the first messengers from the looked-for land, as specks in the tumbling waste of sea, or lying hove to in all weathers.…
Wilson threw his doubts overboard. All he had ever read of bellying canvas, whipping spars, and lee rails awash leaped into the foreground of his boyish imagination. Here was his chance for such a "descriptive story" as he had dreamed of through weeks and months, this last cruise of the last pilot schooner. He dashed into the art room, snatched up the waiting camera, and bolted for the station. After he dropped panting into a seat of the accommodation train for Lewes, he found himself already overhauling his stock of sea-lore and sailor adjectives.
There was time for reflection in this four-hour journey to the sea, and ere long, sober second thought began to overtake his first wild elation. The young reporter's doubts came trooping back. He remembered now that he had never written a line of "ship-news" for the Standard. He blushed to confess to himself that his life on salt water had been bounded by the decks of river excursion steamers. And what had he ever done worth the notice of the managing editor? Of course, he had worked hard, and the world, at least in fiction, occasionally rewarded honest merit in lowly places with unexpected largess. But any "star man" of the staff would have given a week's salary for such a note as this from the chief executive of the Standard. And he, James Arbuthnot Wilson, was indubitably the rawest and humblest recruit of that keen and rough-riding squadron of talent.
An inevitable reaction swung his mood into the forebodings. The train was loafing along the upper reaches of Delaware Bay when he re-read the intoxicating note, and caught himself repeating "Dear Mr. Wilson," with a sudden glimmer of association. In another miserable moment the youth's beautiful dream was wrenched from him. What a fool he had been! "Wilson," "Wilson," he muttered and burst out:
"Of course, there is another Wilson, the tip-top man of the staff. It's the Wilson who's been filling in as chief of the Washington Bureau for six months. I heard somebody say the other night that 'Doc' Wilson was coming back, and was to go on general work again. He must have turned up over Sunday. And that new boy put his note in my box. Well, I am IT."
Young James Arbuthnot Wilson squeezed back a smarting tear. He did not try to fence with this surmise. There was no room for doubt that the kind words and the pleasant outing had been aimed at his high-salaried elder. James Arbuthnot had never clapped eyes on the gifted "Doc" Wilson, whose Washington dispatches had carried no signature and whose distant personality had made no impression upon this wretched understudy of his.
How could the pilgrim muster courage to go back and face the issue? He would be the office butt— Well, he could resign, but most likely, he reflected, dismissal would be the instant penalty of this incredibly presumptuous blunder. The only thing to be done was to drop off at the next way station and return to the scene of his downfall. But to his stammering plea the brakeman returned:
"Next train up won't get along here till late to-night. You better go through to Lewes instead of waiting seven hours at one of these next-to-nothing flag stations."
The reporter slumped into his seat and looked through the open window. The tang of brine was in the breeze that gushed up the bay with the rising tide. Across the green fields he began to glimpse flashing blue water and bits of the traffic of far-off seas. A deep-laden tramp freighter was creeping toward her port, a battered bark surged solemnly in tow of an ocean-going tug, and a four-masted schooner was reaching up the bay with every sail pulling. Across the aisle of the car Wilson noticed, with a melancholy pleasure, four deep-tanned men of rugged aspect, who played cards with much talk of ships and tides and skippers. They belonged in this picture.
Wilson thought of the stewing city far behind him, and the spirit of some seafaring ancestor was whispering in his ear. Yes, by Jove! he would see the tragic venture through after all. It were better to return with a "story," and fall with colors flying than to slink back to empty ridicule. Let them try to overtake him if they dared. This was "Mr. Wilson's" mission, and no one could snatch it from him.
When the train labored into Lewes, the fugitive looked across the flats to the cuddling arm of the Breakwater and the shining sea beyond. With the instinct of the hunted, he made ready to flee in this direction, away from the station and the town. As he dropped from the car, a man in the uniform of a station agent climbed aboard and shouted:
"Telegram for Mr. Wilson. Is Mr. Wilson aboard? Urgent telegram for Mr. J. A. Wilson."
Mr. Wilson's pulse fluttered as he dove behind the warehouse across the tracks, while the hoarse cry of the station agent rang horribly in his ears. The long arm of the Standard had almost clutched him by the collar. As he hurried down the nearest street to the water, he saw heading toward him a lusty youth of a sailorish cut, who eyed the camera case as if hasty suspicions were confirmed.
"Is your name Wilson?" demanded the stranger. "If it be, come along with me. I'm from the Albatross' boat-crew."
Wondering how much guilt was written in his face, Wilson fervently shook the hand of the briny youth. They fared toward the pier, while the convoy explained:
"You're in luck. We're ready to go to sea as soon as you get aboard. Hit it just right, didn't you? The pilots 'll be glad to see you again. They was tickled to death over the piece you wrote for the paper when the Eben Tunnell, Number Three, come in after fightin' through the '88 blizzard, and specially what you wrote about ol' 'Pop' Markle stickin' by the Morgan Castle when she ketched fire off the Capes two year ago. And, say, they still talk about that jack-pot you sky-hooted clean through the cabin skylight, and how th' Pilots' Association went in mournin' for thirty days after that poker game. Two o' them boys is aboard this cruise, with the chips all stacked an' waitin', and their knives whetted. I'm sorry I missed the fun before."
James Arbuthnot Wilson gulped hard at these lamentable tidings. He was vaulting from the frying-pan into the fire. These rude and reckless men would probably heave him overboard. And, alas, the penny-ante of his mild college dissipations had left him as deficient in poker prowess as in sea-lore. The foremast hand from the Albatross was somewhat crestfallen over his capture. If this slip of a boy was the seasoned and capable "Doc" Wilson, able to hold his own in all weather and any company, then appearances were basely deceiving, and the escort felt a sense of personal grievance.
The boat was waiting at the pier and the four slouching seamen rowed out to the black schooner, which lazily rolled her gleaming sides off the end of the Breakwater. Wilson climbed awkwardly aboard and was saved from sprawling his length on deck by a strong hand, which yanked him in a welcoming grip. Then a stocky man with a grizzled mustache stepped back and fairly shouted:
"Why, hell! You ain't 'Doc' Wilson. What kind of a game is this? I popped up from below in time to see your hat coming over the side. Kick me, please. I'm dreamin', as sure as my name's McCall."
He fished a rumpled telegram from his blue clothes, and flourished it before the nose of his guest, as he cried formidably:
"'Doc' Wilson, of the Standard, will be down on afternoon train. Take him aboard and treat him right."
Young Wilson looked at the half mile of water between the schooner and the beach, and thought of trying to swim for it. But the bully-ragging tone of the pilot struck a spark of his latent pluck and he answered with some spirit:
"I'm mighty sorry you're so disappointed. My name is Wilson, James Arbuthnot Wilson, of the Standard. The order to join your boat was delivered to me. If there's been a mistake, and I'm so unwelcome, I'll have to put you to the trouble of setting me ashore again."
The innate hospitality of his kind smothered the pilot's first emotions, and he regretted his rudeness as he smote the lad on the back and shouted:
"All right, Jimmy Arbutus. I guess there's no great damage done. It's now or never for your newspaper, and if we can't carry the skipper, we'll get along with the mate of your outfit. And we'll give you a cruise to make your lead-pencil smoke. Tumble below and shake them natty clothes. The boat-keeper will fit you out with a pair of boots and a jumper."
Sore and abashed, with the hateful emotions of an intruder, Wilson crept below and faced another ordeal. In the pilots' roomy cabin, which ran half the length of the schooner, four men were changing their clothes and tidying up their bunks. One of them emerged from the confusion to yell at the invader's patent leather ties:
"Hello, Doc, you old pirate. Is that you? Glad to see you aboard. Well, I will be damned!"
His jaw dropped and he looked sheepish as a hurricane voice came through the open skylight:
"Don't hurt the kid's feelin's. I've done plenty of that. This is Jimmy Arbutus Wilson, apprentice to 'Doc,' and he's doin' the best he can. 'Doc' got stranded somewheres, and the lad is takin' his run. I don't fathom it a little bit, but what's the odds?"
The passenger was introduced to all hands, who showed a depressing lack of enthusiasm, and the pilots returned to their tasks. Wilson retired, blushing and confused, to the edge of his bunk. Presently the oldest man of the party sat down beside the intruder, and shook his hand for the second time. Wilson raised his downcast face to the white-haired veteran, who said softly:
"Now, sonny, don't let the boys rile you none. They're kinder sore on some of the greenhorns that writes pieces all wrong for the Philadelphy papers, and this 'Doc' Wilson knows sailor ways and sailor lingo, and they sorter took a shine to him and his style. But fur's I know, you can write rings around him. And Old Pop Markle, as they calls me, will see you through, blow high, blow low. It's my last cruise, this is. I'm past seventy year, sonny, and my oldest boy is a pilot; he brought a tanker in yestiddy, and my grandson is servin' his apprentice years, and he'll be gettin' his papers pretty soon. It's time for me to quit. I was goin' to lay up ashore in the spring, but I kinder wanted to wind up with the old Albatross. Better come on deck, sonny; we're shortenin' cable."
Wilson smiled his gratitude at the gentle and garrulous old pilot, whose smooth-shaven face was webbed with fine-drawn wrinkles, as if each salty cruise had left its own recording line. The blue eyes were faded from staring into fifty years of sun and wind, but they held a beaming interest in the welfare of this tyro struggling in the meshes of hostile circumstance.
The reporter followed his guardian on deck, and his spirits swiftly rose. The Albatross was paying off under a flattened forestaysail, while her crew tailed onto the main-sheet with a roaring chorus, for they, too, felt a thrill of sentiment in this last cruise. The wind held fresh from the south'ard, and under the smooth lee of Cape Henlopen the Albatross shot seaward, as if they were skating over a polished floor. Now the pilots came tumbling up, and shouted as they turned to and helped set the maintopsail and staysail. The schooner staggered down to it, until the white water hissed over her low bulwark, and sobbed through the scuppers. "Old Pop" Markle slapped his knee and cried huskily:
"Give her all she'll stand, boys. It's like old times when we raced that dodgasted Number Four and hung to the weather riggin' by our teeth, and bent a new suit of sails every other cruise."
Holding the wind abeam, the Albatross drove straight out to sea, and then, once clear of Cape May, slid off to the north'ard. Now, the quartering sea picked her up and she swooped down the slopes and tried nimbly to climb the frothing hills, as the jolly wind smote her press of canvas and jammed her smoking through' them. A new exhilaration surged in young Wilson's veins. He was drinking it all in, the buoyant flight of the low, slim schooner, the intimate nearness of the sea, the sweetness of the wind, and the solemnity of the marching twilight. He would not have been elsewhere for worlds. Then the fat and sweating face of the cook appeared from below, and bellowed an inarticulate summons.
The pilots obeyed with ardor, and Wilson followed timidly in their wake. Supper smoked on the cabin table, and the guest was glad to survey the stout fare of hash, cold meat, potatoes, green peas, flaky hot biscuits, and a mammoth pudding. "Old Pop" Markle took the youngster under his protecting wing, and found a seat on the locker beside his own. The reporter fell to, while the pilots chatted with bursts of gusty laughter. He made one desperate rally to join the talk, and in a quiet moment asked a neighbor:
"How do you know when a ship wants a pilot?"
"We generally have a trained green parrot that flies over and asks 'em," was the cruel response. "But we ran short of stores last cruise, and had to eat him. This voyage we intend to mail 'em postal cards."
There was an appreciative roar, and Wilson winced as "Old Pop" Markle whispered:
"Don't mind that Peter Haines. He's got a heart as soft as mush. It's only their skylarkin', sonny. Hit 'em back. That's what they like."
But the victim had lost all self-confidence, and now he was beginning to feel dizzy and forlorn. The smell of food, the heat, and the jerky plunging of the cabin were overwhelming. He staggered to his bunk and crept in. This was the last blow, that on top of his false pretences he should be laid low before the eyes of this hostile crowd. He knew not what happened, until hours after he awoke from a semi-stupor to find "Old Pop" Markle sponging his face with cold water and calling in his ear:
"There's a steamer coming up from the east'ard. Brace up and get on deck. It's a pretty sight."
The boy clambered through the companionway as the boat-keeper touched a match to an oil-soaked bunch of waste in a wire cage at the end of his torch. The schooner and the near-by sea were bathed in a yellow glare. Out in the darkness a blue Coston light glowed a response. Some one shouted: "On deck for the skiff," and five minutes later the boat-crew was pulling off in the night to the waiting steamer, with a pilot in the stern-sheets.
"There goes your friend, Peter Haines," chuckled "Pop" Markle. "I knowed you'd take it hard if I didn't give you a chance to say good-bye to him. He won't pester you no more this cruise."
The wind blew some of the cobwebs from poor Wilson's muddled head, and he felt refreshed. Soon the pelting spray drove him below deck and he curled up on a locker, watching the poker game from which youth and inexperience barred him. And what was more cutting, he was not even asked to play.
"It would be like taking pennies from a blind child," callously commented the strapping McCall who had welcomed him aboard. But the white-haired patriarch of them all did not join the game, and he said cheerily to Wilson:
"You're too young and I'm too old to be wastin' our wages in them pursuits, ain't we, sonny? There's an old lady and a cottage at Lewes that takes care of my rake-off. And instid of raisin' the limit, I raise vegetubbles for my fun.'
Wilson opened his bruised heart and told the old pilot the story of his venture, and felt relieved that his masquerade had been thrown away. "Pop" Markle's blue eyes twinkled:
"See here, Jimmy Arbutus, I'll see that you write a fust-rate piece for your paper. Ask me anything your amazin' ignorance tells you to. The boys wanted me to take in the fust vessel we met, and was willin' to shove their turns aside, but I told 'em it was my last cruise, and I was goin' to see her through to the finish. So we've lots of time to talk pilotin' together. What was the most remarkable experience ever I had? Pshaw, that sounds like a full-rigged reporter, sonny, really it does.
"Well, I never got drownded boardin' a vessel, but I once fell afoul of a skipper that was a worse blunderin' idjit than you've been. It may sound kinder comfortin' to you. About fifty miles off the Capes, I dumb aboard an Italian bark. Her captain said he was bound for Wilmington, and would I take him in? He got a tow-boat at the Breakwater, and we were goin' up the river all right, when plumb by accident this benighted Dago imparted to me that he was bound for Wilmington, North Caroliny. 'Great Scott! You dodgasted lunatic,' says I, 'you're pretty nigh up to Wilmington, Delaware.' He went crazier than ever, and put about for sea after I showed him on the chart where he was at. He had been runnin' by dead-reckonin', and didn't know where he was. So, when he picked up a pilot and found he was headed all right for Wilmington, he figured his troubles were over. So there's worse than you afloat, Jimmy Arbutus."
At his suggestion, Wilson dug up his notebook and scribbled therein many other yarns, for the old pilot warmed to his task, and insisted that each of the poker players should contribute a story to the fund. When he was routed out for breakfast, the party had lost another pilot who had found his ship at daybreak. The wind had drawn into the northeast, and the Albatross was snuggled down under double reefs. The barometer was falling, and the boat-keeper shook his head when the pilots insisted upon edging further off shore.
"Drive her till she cracks," shouted McCall. "This is the trip when we keep going till we get our ships. The Albatross goes home empty, you bet your boots."
With much daring and difficulty one man was put aboard a liner late in the afternoon. Three pilots were left, and they swept Wilson into their genial comradeship, as the little party clawed its way to supper, and hung onto the table by its eyelids. In his mind, Wilson began to see the page story, "full of human interest and color." To-morrow he would work at his "introduction," and the thought of really making a start at filling those stately columns was perturbing. He felt something like stage-fright at the notion of it.
Before midnight, James Arbuthnot Wilson had forgotten his "story," and was thinking only of the awful turmoil above him. The wind had leaped to the might of a sudden summer gale. The schooner was hove to and battened tight, and like a tightly corked bottle she danced over the shouting seas. Made sick and giddy, Wilson sought "Old Pop" Markle, who was peacefully snoring in the next bunk, and shook him awake.
"Pshaw, sonny," the old man muttered, "she's safer than a big ship. She'll rare and tear and sputter till it blows over. If it'll ease your mind any, I'll take a peek on deck."
The pilot slipped into his oil-skins and vanished.
"It's pretty thick," he said when he came below, "but there ain't no great sea on, not for us. Rainin' hard and blowin' some. McCall is standin' watch with the boat-keeper. You're safer than if you was in the Standard office. You can't lose your job out here, Jimmy."
Somewhat comforted, Wilson tried to sleep. It was a terrifying experience for the greenhorn, with more "local color" than he had bargained for. Some time later in the night he was half dreaming that "Doc" Wilson was holding his head under water and drowning him with the most enjoyable deliberation.
With a crashing sound like the explosion of a great gun in his ears, he was flung headlong clear across the cabin, and on top of him came "Old Pop" Markle, sputtering harmless curses. The cabin floor sloped like the side of a house and stayed there as Wilson scrambled to his hands and knees. Then came a more sickening lurch, and before the hanging cabin lamp was smashed against the deck-beams, the lad saw that the old man was dazed. He gave him a hand, and together they climbed the slope, and grasped the legs of the stationary table. They heard the other pilots stumble up the companion ladder, and hammer back the hatch, with yells of terror lest they be trapped.
Forward of the cabin bulkhead, they heard the roar of inrushing water, and smothered outcries among the watch below. While the old man and the boy tried to grope their way aft to the ladder, the sea crashed through the bulkhead door from the galley beyond, and instantly they were picked up and hurled aft, choking and fighting for life. Wilson chanced to grasp a step of the ladder, and with his free arm pulled "Old Pop" Markle to this refuge. The reporter did not want to die, and he knew that death dragged him by the heels. And it was with no heroic prompting that he pushed the old man up ahead of him. It was done on the instant, as one friend would help another in a pinch, without wrought-out purpose.
The water was sucking at his waist as he fought his way up, and partly out, and managed to double himself over the hatch coaming, with the old man's legs across his shoulders. Thus they were half jammed in the cramped exit. Just then the flare torch was lighted by a seaman. In the yellow glare "Old Pop" Markle saw the two pilots and two, only two, of the crew wrestling with the one skiff left at the davits. One of them stopped to beckon wildly to the old man and started to go to his aid.
In this moment the schooner lurched under with a weary, lifeless roll, and a black sea stamped across her sodden hull. It licked up the boat and the handful of toiling men, it leaped forward and pulled down the black figure with the torch. The two men still jammed in the hatchway were cruelly battered, but they could not be wrenched away. And when the towering comber had passed, there was darkness and silence, and no more shouting voices on the schooner's deck.
The old pilot wriggled free and got his hands on a life-buoy that hung within his reach at the after end of the cabin hatch. Wilson dragged himself after him, and pitched against a splintered mass of planking upended against the wheel. They listened and heard a steamer's imploring whistle, and one faint cry off to leeward. "Pop" Markle groaned as he fumbled in the darkness and laboriously passed a tangle of line around the wreck of the skylight cover to which Wilson was clinging.
"Hang on, sonny," he gasped. "I've made the buoy fast to the loose timber. We'll go off together with the next sea, sure. My God! here it comes."
The dying schooner seemed to sink from beneath them, and clinging to their frail bit of a raft, they were spun off to leeward in the arms of the sea that swamped the rock-ballasted Albatross. Turned over and over, the two men fought for breath until the skylight cover righted, and they came to the surface. They slid swiftly into a murky hollow, and were borne to the tattered crest whose froth was strangling.
But the wind was falling fast. Such seas as those which had broken over the helpless Albatross were running in swollen billows when they met no barrier to check them. Therefore the castaways could cling and breathe, and even made shift to pass the loose ends of the line around their waists while they waited for the end. Now their spray-blinded eyes dimly saw the lights of the steamer that had bitten halfway through the pilot-schooner. She was blundering far to windward, and her signal rockets cut red gashes in the night. They could watch her swing in a useless circle as she sought to find the craft she had struck. Drifting away to leeward, the old pilot and the young reporter tried to shout, but their little rasping cries were pitifully futile. They coughed the racking brine from their throats, and saw the last rocket soar, saw the steamer's lights fade in the rain, become twinkling points and vanish.There were no words between them until the day began to break. Now and then one sought the other's hand and found a feebly responsive grip. Thus they knew that death had not come to the little raft. With the gray light, the wind veered round to the south'ard, and except for the swinging swell, the sea was smoothed to summer gentleness. The eternal miracle of dawn had never come to more grateful hearts than these two. Youth had survived the battering ordeal with mind still alert, but old age was near passing with hurts and exhaustion. Now that he could see no help, the boy so managed it that the pilot could lie half across the lifebuoy, which floated high with the supporting planking beneath it.
"Them as wasn't drownded and smashed in their bunks, couldn't swim, or none to speak of," sighed the old man. "I knew 'em all from boys. Two left.… And we're the most wuthless of the lot, sonny. But you may learn how to make an honest livin' some day.… Don't bother with me.… I'm due to go.… The old lady has the cottage, and there's the pension from the Pilot's Fund.… And two more pilots in the family.… Ain't you sorry you didn't let 'Doc' Wilson come?"
The boy sputtered:
"No, we aren't dead yet, and if we're picked up it's the story of a lifetime. I don't believe the Lord saved us from the wreck to die on a summer morning like this. And, my, but you were good to me, Mr. Markle."
They floated in silence while the June sun rose higher, and heat and thirst piled up their wretchedness. The seasoned fiber of the old man had been toughened for such a stress as this. He hung on grimly because he had always hung on grimly to whatever life set him to endure. Although they were out on the edge of traffic bound in and out of the Delaware Capes, he still hoped, but mostly for the boy.
Six hours after the Albatross had gone to the bottom, a boat from a crippled brig, laden with salt from Turk's Island, picked up a bit of wreckage to which were lashed a white-haired man and a beardless lad. Both were too weak to talk, and the British skipper had them put into bunks, and poured raw Jamaica rum down their throats. Wilson was the first to revive, but he could not rise, and had to content himself with tidings that the pilot was alive and conscious. Night had come before the reporter could totter as far as the mate's cabin and see his comrade.
The pilot's leathery face was strangely bleached, and he could no more than whisper with a faltering huskiness:
"God bless their poor souls. They was all neighbors of mine. Hello, Jimmy Arbutus, have you begun to write that piece for the paper? There's something wrong with my insides. I think I busted some of 'em when we was jammed in that hatch. Well, we're going home, my son. Are you all taut again?"
Wilson tried to hide his anxiety and set himself to nursing the old man as best he could. His clumsy attentions were received with a sweet resignation, but the old man showed signs of impatience. At length, unable to restrain his desire, he asked:
"Why don't you begin to write your piece instead of wastin' time on my old hulk? I want to see it's done all shipshape. We ain't goin' to have no 'Doc' Wilson nor a lot of fresh young pilots laughin' at our blunders. I'll overhaul the writin' for you."
Wilson was eager to begin. The skipper found a half-filled log-book, and the butt of a pencil, and the reporter sat by the pilot's bunk, and wrote with frowning effort. His labor was so evident that at length the interested pilot asked:
"You seem to be making heavy weather of it, Jimmy. Mind my lookin' over the nigh end of it?"
Wilson passed the log-book over with a flutter of expectancy. He was proud of his opening paragraphs. He flattered himself that he had caught the spirit of the tragedy of the last and lost pilot-schooner. The old man read them with puckered brow, and laid the book down without comment. Wilson waited and had to break the awkward silence:
"Anything the matter with that?"
"Well, I had only a common school education, and I've been at sea fifty years. I'm no judge, I guess. It's too high-falutin' for me. Those dictionary words are mighty imposin', and the opening verse of poetry looks gilt-edged. But, well, every man to his trade."
The very young reporter looked hurt, and the pilot tried to soothe him by flatly denying the truth of everything he had said. Wilson put the book away and went on deck. In his mind there was a glimmering notion that his literary method might be open to criticism. The old fear and lack of self-confidence came back. He would rest another day and try again.
Next morning the brig was beating against a baffling wind, and the Delaware Capes were two hundred and fifty miles away. A mattress was brought on deck, and the old man was laid on it beneath an awning. He was growing weaker, and began to fret when he found the brig was making so little headway toward her port and his home. Wilson was moody and worried about his comrade. He had no heart for his "story."
After a while the British skipper sat down beside the old man, and began to ask him about the loss of the Albatross. The pilot began with the start of the last cruise, and with crisp and homely detail, and with many breaks in his voice, he carried the tale down to the loss of the vessel, the loss of his comrades, and the escape of the oldest and youngest of those that had sailed in her. And because he felt it all so deeply, the story did not once wander from its chartered course.
Wilson pulled himself together and picked up his log-book. He felt that it was his duty to write what he heard. When he had finished, the scales fell from his eyes, for at a great price he had been taught to discern that virtue of simplicity which most of his craft must spend years to learn. When the pilot fell into a doze, he stole below and began to write his "story." It was not all as the pilot had told it, but its backbone and its vitals belonged to the simple and untutored old man. Next day when he read it to "Pop" Markle the pilot brightened and observed:
"Any sailor could understand that, my lad. It sounds as dodgasted ordinary as if I had wrote it myself. The pilots will think a heap of that piece. I want you to hold your job, sonny."
The third day passed, and then the fourth, and the booming head wind was holding the lubberly brig out of sight of the Delaware Capes. The pilot insisted that he be carried on deck whenever the sun shone. He was looking for the Henlopen light. When he was not drowsy, he would talk of home to his young comrade, for all his thoughts were flocking thither.
"I don't think I'm going to fetch it, sonny," he murmured when the fifth day broke with no land in sight. "It looks like you're going to be the sole survivor of the Albatross. That will make your piece a heap stronger, won't it? My own boy couldn't have done more for me than you have. If we don't pick up the Capes by noon, I want you to write a letter for me to Mary, that's my wife. You can take it ashore at Lewes. You'll find the cottage easy enough. And you must go around and look at my vegetubbles. One of my boys will be home, and he'll see that they get my hulk to the buryin' ground. The skipper here has promised to anchor long enough to send me ashore."
Wilson choked, and tried to cheer the old man. But the faded blue eyes were serene with the foreknowledge of his end. The letter was written at his dictation, and Wilson sobbed while he went below to find an envelope in the skipper's desk. Then the pilot tried to sign it, and his knotted brown fingers held the pencil while Wilson helped him trace the wavering:
"Your loving Seth."
Late in the afternoon of this, the fifth day, a tiny shaft, like a beckoning finger, cut the cloudless western skyline. Seth Markle heard the shouts of the men clustered forward who were eager to bring him the longed-for news. Wilson and the skipper came to him, and propped him up in his pillows on the poop-deck.
"Henlopen light," he whispered. "Henlopen light, and Lewes just around the Point."
The dim light of life burned brighter in this draught of hope, but soon waned lower than before. After a long silence, the old man tried to speak. Wilson put his ear close to the resolute mouth, and could barely hear:
"Tell her how good you've been to me. I—I hope the piece is all right. The last cruise.… Oh, Mary, you're waiting around the Point of the Cape."
He was alive until sunset, but he did not speak, except once when Wilson thought he heard a fluttering whisper of "Mary," and after that the rough-hewn face became very peaceful.
The brig crept into the lee of the Breakwater soon after daylight next morning. Wilson went ashore and found the cottage with the marvelous vegetable garden, and a sweet-faced woman who read her letter while the bearer walked softly among the cabbage rows, and noted, with a quick pang, how lovingly they had been tended. Presently Mary Markle came to him, and put her motherly arms around his neck and kissed him through her tears. They went to a near-by cottage where dwelt the eldest son. There Wilson left them. Before he went away he said:
"He was the best friend I ever had. I'm coming down day after to-morrow. May I go to the church with you?"
He had to tarry in the streets, for the news had spread, and other weeping wives of pilots and seamen pressed around him. When, as tenderly as possible, he was able to leave them, he went to the telegraph office and sent this message to the managing editor of the Standard:
"Just landed. Am sole survivor of pilot schooner Albatross run down and foundered a week ago. Will report with my story at noon."
On the train Wilson added to his "story" in the old log-book the facts of the last days of Pilot Seth Markle. His pencil quivered and balked when he recalled the words and face of his gentle old critic, and somehow, through his tears, he brought the narrative of the last cruise to its unadorned conclusion. Then he closed the book and leaned back with a great weariness. Now he was passing that bright vista of shore through which he had first seen the Bay, where he had chosen to advance rather than to retreat. Those intervening days seemed like years of life. He had gone away a boy, he was coming back a man.
When the young reporter walked into the Standard office, the first man to greet him was a bald and bulky stranger with an impressive manner, who said:
"Ah, the young hero, I presume. You had a great streak of luck, didn't you? Glad to see you pulled through. My name is Wilson. I'm to take your notes at once and work up the story from them. We're going to play as the leading feature in to-morrow's paper, and follow up with a page for Sunday."
Young Wilson looked at "Doc" Wilson with a new assertiveness and threw back his slight shoulders as he replied:
"No, thank you. Nothing doing. My story is written, and it's going to be turned in to the boss as it stands. I'm going in to see him now."
"Oh, nonsense," snapped "Doc" Wilson. "I can understand your wanting to do the story, and your head being swelled a bit and all that. But if you want to hold your job you'd better fork over your notes without any more fuss about it. The old man passed it out that he was going to fire you, anyhow. I'll say a good word for you if you can produce the goods."
Young Wilson brushed past his elder, who stood dumbfounded at the insolence of the "pup." Then the managing editor was confronted by an unabashed intruder, who announced:
"Here's my story, sir. There's about six columns of it. And it's all ready to be edited. And no 'Doc' Wilson nor anybody else is going to rewrite it until you've passed on it."
The managing editor saw a bedraggled figure with a firm-set jaw and a level glance which looked him squarely in the eyes. He took in the sea-stained clothes, and the burned and grimy face, and smiled as he said:
"I'll read it, Mr. Wilson. Go home and come back at six o'clock. Then we'll talk it over. You've been through a tremendous experience, haven't you? It's your story. Don't fret about that."
When James Arbuthnot Wilson next entered the managing editor's office, that dignified personage grasped his hand and exclaimed:
"My son, why haven't I known you could write a story like this? It's the real thing. It's a masterpiece. Where did you learn how?"
The boy's face twitched as he said very slowly:
"The man who taught me how died in sight of home. It's his story. It isn't mine at all. I want a day off, if you please, to go down to Lewes again. I'm—I'm the last of the Albatross."