The Praying Skipper and Other Stories/Chapter 7
SURFMAN BRAINARD'S "DAY OFF"
ASHLEY BRAINARD left the life-saving station and lounged across the wide beach on which the cadenced breakers tumbled green and white. Beyond the gentle surf the Gulf Stream dyed the sleeping sea deep turquoise. The curving coast line wavered in the glare of sunlight fierce as midsummer, and the little landward breeze was warm and fragrant. Barefooted, clad in a sleeveless jersey and a frayed pair of white ducks, Brainard dug his toes in the wet sand and stood scowling at an automobile that moved swiftly up the beach. He seemed to resent its jarring intrusion upon the brooding peace of the tropical landscape as if a personal grudge were involved. In truth he was angry with himself that he could not smother the sudden discontent born of the sight of this drumming, flamboyant chariot which had swooped down from the big hotel five miles to the northward. When the car became a swerving speck and then vanished beyond a feathery clump of cabbage palms, the youth turned back to the station muttering:
"Now that Tarpon Inlet has closed up, I suppose we'll be pestered to death with these silly tourists. But, whew! it was like getting letters from home to see my kind of people again. I'd forgotten what they looked like."
The lusty surfman rubbed his tousled head as was his habit when restless or perplexed, and focused his irritation on the red-roofed cottage in which hitherto he had found contentment.
"This life-saving business in Florida is all tommy-rot. Here it is the middle of winter, no ice and sleet, no storms, nothing you ever read about to fit in with this game. I'm due to take a day off and get away from it."
He flung himself into the house, past the surf -boat that filled the lower floor, and climbed to the airy living-room above. Jim Conklin, mending a cast-net on the piazza, called cheerfully:
"You don't look happy, Boy. I thought you'd be glad to see some of your gilt-edged pals again. Did they try to borrow money from you, or did they make fun of your clothes?"
Brainard growled with an air of petulance absurdly boyish for the fine-conditioned bigness of him:
"I'm tired of shooting life-lines across a pole stuck in the sand and pulling my back-rivets loose in the boat after imaginary wrecks. It's mostly dress rehearsal in this shack. And we sit around and tell each other the same old hard-luck stories until I'm going daffy."
Conklin's weather-beaten face twitched and a little protesting gesture showed that he was hurt. Commander of a big passenger steamer at forty, he had piled her ashore in a fog three years before, and the iron law of his calling had thrown him "on the beach" without another chance. Offered a berth as watchman on the company's dock, he could not bring himself to this degradation even for bread and butter, and he had come to the surface again as one of the Tarpon Inlet crew.
Brainard saw his thoughtless blunder and quickly added:
"I didn't mean that, old man. You know how much I wish I could help you get on your feet again. Forgive me, won't you? I haven't any real troubles. Only a frost-bitten pineapple patch that was going to make my fortune. But it will be bearing again in two years, and then I'll be on velvet. Those gay visitors made me a bit restless, that's all, just as you walk the beach for hours after a Morgan liner passes close in shore."
Bearded Fritz Wagenhals, the station-keeper, broke in with a sardonic chuckle:
"It is the same way when we haf canned sausage for dinner. I think myself back in Heidelberg already, where I haf taken my university degree twenty years ago. What is the matter mit you, Boy? Was it the homesickness?"
"No-o, not exactly," confessed Brainard with a slightly embarrassed smile, "but I seem to be the only one of the three of us who can lift the curtain and get a peep at what he used to be. It's my day off, and with your permission, Skipper Wagenhals, I'm going to break my vows and trail up to the gorgeous Coquina Beach Hotel for dinner. It sounds rash, doesn't it? No sign of bad weather, is there?"
The Keeper replied with a shade of doubt:
"The barometer is not so conservative as I would like to see him, and we are very due to catch a norther already. But I don't think the weather will break before next day or to-morrow. You haf been a good boy, and you will haf your fling."
Brainard hauled a steamer-trunk from beneath his cot and began to toss out apparel which had been hidden therein for two long years. He held up a dinner coat and caressed it, rubbed a pair of patent-leather ties with a bunch of cotton waste, and made obeisance to a crackling shirt-bosom. Memories crowded back, and the smash of his high hopes of fortune was forgotten. Ashley Brainard was among his own again, a famous stroke of the 'varsity eight, counting a host of young men and maidens among his friends and admirers.
His mad impulse sent a flutter of excitement through the station. The surfmen crowded around and were eager to help their butterfly emerge from his cocoon. Fritz Wagenhals said, as he picked up the shirt with reverent care:
"It is a privilege if you allow me the buttons to put in. I once wore him every night. My Gott, that was so long ago! Also it is good manners here to eat mit your knife, but not so at the Coquina Beach Hotel."
The bustle aroused lanky Bill Stebbins, who was sleeping outside in the sand. He hurried in to offer aid and counsel:
"Dad burn it, I was onst sheriff o' Dade County, Brainard, an' I reckon I got a right smart pull yit. If you git pinched fob diso'derly conduct, raise a yell, an' I'll come a-runnin'."
When Brainard announced that he had no intention of dressing in the station the disappointment was so evident that he yielded to the clamor, and consented to array himself for what Fritz Wagenhals called "a little drill, to see if you are all-ship-shape-put together, mit your standin' riggin' taut."
These embarrassments delayed the departure until late in the afternoon.
In his one decent suit of blue serge, which had been lovingly pressed by the station cook, Brainard swung his luggage as if it were as light as his heart. He turned once to look at the red-roofed station nestling close to the sand-dunes, and for a moment felt as if he were playing the traitor to those loyal big-hearted comrades of his. Every one of them had fought with adverse fortune, and, beaten back, met the odds with smiling faces. He was the youngest of the crew and the pineapple plantation would yet release him from his chosen bondage. On this "day off" he ought to be back in the clearing by the lagoon, "bossing" his one laborer, but he looked ahead, and his young blood thrilled at the thought of glimpsing his own world again.
Northward from the station the coast swept seaward in a bold curve which ended in a low point over which the breakers played in spring-tides. Just beyond the Point, Brainard came to the Inlet and crossed, dry-shod, the passage between ocean and lagoon which had carried a ten-foot channel three months before. Now he could see, three miles to the northward, the long pier and the clustered roofs of the great hotel buildings. He had often come thus far on patrol, but had always gazed at the glittering resort as forbidden ground until he should regain his rightful place among these pleasure-seekers.
Soon he passed through a noble avenue arched with palms, and came to lawns that almost lipped the sea. After the smarting dazzle of sand and ocean, this lush, green vista was like cold water to a thirsty man. Parties of golfers were drifting across the background; white and fluffy gowns gleamed in the shrubbery. But when the wayfarer advanced to the long hotel piazza the smartly voluble groups of men and women made him unexpectedly timorous. Obtaining a room, he slipped through the crowded and colorful corridor to the nearest elevator, oblivious that more than one woman turned to look after the stalwart youth whose handsome face was so darkly burned and whose wholesome vigor was no veneer laid on after a wearing season in club-land.
Brainard felt more like himself when he was dressed and had tenderly absorbed the cocktail whose perfections had haunted his long walk. He swung into the dining-room as if he owned it, and chose a table facing the doors where he could view the grand entrance of the actors in this extravaganza. Three young women near him were chattering of spring flittings to Lenox and Westchester, and of summer pilgrimages to Newport and abroad. He heard familiar names of people he had once known. Soon a hand fell upon his shoulder and he looked up to see the chubby face of his classmate "Toodles" Brown, who fairly roared:
"By all the gods! It is Ashley Brainard. You dear old fool! Have you been dead or in jail or did you just float in with the tide? Of course I'll sit down. I haven't seen you since we sailed my schooner for the Atlantic Cup three summers ago. Explain yourself."
Brainard held the hand that had gripped his and gazed with speechless joy into the beaming features of "Toodles" Brown. Then the surfman grinned as he said:
"Good old Toodles! Why, I have a cottage just down the beach beyond the Point. I'm too darned exclusive to mix up with this herd of get-rich-quick millionaires and gilded loafers like your fat self."
"Living down the beach in a cottage," gasped Mr. Brown. "I've been here two seasons and I swear I know every cottager on the island. I think you're a blessed old liar. Tell me all about yourself, Ashley. You've given us all the cold shake, you know."
Brainard explained with a boyish laugh:
"Well, you know I was down here shooting through Christmas vacation of Senior year, and I got the pineapple bee in my bonnet. There were millions in it, on paper. But Dad wanted me to cuddle down at a desk in town. I stood it for a year and you remember how I cussed. Then I said, 'The glad free life under the palms for mine,'—bucked clean over the traces, and bolted. I was beginning to dream of counting my coin, when one night in January the thermometer slid three degrees too low, and, bang, what a difference in the morning! It was a case of pineapple frappé. I was almost broke, but I couldn't throw up the sponge, and last fall there was an opening at Uncle Sam's life-saving station for a strong lad used to fussing around the water. And there I am drawing my little old forty a month and proud of it, until my new crop comes in. But, oh, Toodles, I am glad to see you, and for Heaven's sake, tell me all the news about everybody! I never could write letters. And I'm a God-forsaken exile."
Chubby Mr. Brown was too agitated to think of gossip as he blurted:
"You're clean crazy, plumb dippy. Let me stake you till your ship comes in loaded with pineapples. Ash, come back with me. I'm planning a six months' cruise to the Mediterranean, and I've simply got to have you. It's sandy of you and all that, but it's silly pride to think you must bury yourself down here until you win out. Let the cunning little pineapple plants work for you while you come back where you belong. You a life-saver! It's absurd!"
"They are all better men than I in our crew," said Brainard slowly, "and it's a clean, simple, husky life, and I never was so fit. But—well, I wish I hadn't taken this day off. It hurts a little to mix up with this sort of thing. No, I can't borrow money, even from you. To-night I go back to my cot and corn-beef hash. But let's go it while the evening's young."
This suggestion made Mr. Brown brighten and take heart. After dinner they strolled on the quarter mile of piazza facing the moonlit sea, and the scent of tropical flowers hung heavy around them. "Toodles" Brown was anxious to have Brainard meet what he called "the youth and beauty of our set," but his chum asked him to walk first as far as the beach.
The pier was almost deserted, for the wind was rising and a fine spray filled the air with chilling dampness. Brainard looked at the sky with a surfman's interested scrutiny. The moon was dodging among fast-driving clouds and the surf was beginning to boom on the beach with a heavy, sullen note. He recalled the station-keeper's warning of a "norther," but dismissed it because the lonely red-roofed cottage seemed half a world away. Silent for a little while, when he spoke it was with odd and painful effort:
"Have you—have you heard anything of Marion Shaw? I—I m-mean Mrs. Westervelt? Is she well and—and happy?"
Brown chewed his cigar for a moment before he responded:
"That is just what I hoped you might want to talk about when we came out here by ourselves, Ashley. I didn't want to open the subject, you know. Yes, I saw her just before she sailed for Italy two months ago. She went alone, old man. Westervelt's a beast. I don't know what she went through with him, but they've made a clean break of it for good. She didn't confide in me to any extent. But we talked old times, and after a while, well, she asked me about you, and I had nothing to tell her. I didn't even know where you were. And—hem—she wasn't looking at me at all, and she wasn't even talking to me when she said as if she were thinking out loud:
"I'm so lonely. Oh, if I could see him just once!"
Brainard leaned over the railing and stared into the troubled sea as he almost whispered:
"Is she going to get a—get a——"
"Yes, after waiting two years. Then she'll be free to——"
"And you're going to the Mediterranean in the spring?" muttered Brainard. "God, if I could only see her! Two years, you say? If I could only see her!"
Brown laid an arm across his chum's big shoulder and said coaxingly:
"You don't want to meet any of these girls to-night, do you? We'll have a good old talk in my rooms later, and I'll have you booked for my cruise before we part company. There's a gilded temple of chance back here on the lagoon where the little ball rolls round and round, and I have a strong hunch that the luck is running to the black, and also dallying with my pet numbers, fourteen-seventeen-twenty down the middle row. Let's amble over and see what's doing in the roulette mart."
Brainard welcomed the diversion, for his thoughts were all upheaved. When they entered the "Casino," the busy green tables, the rattle of ivory chips, and the tingling excitement pervading the eager throng of men and women awoke in the exile a gambling passion that had long lain dormant. Without conscious act he found himself fingering his little roll of bills while he watched "Toodles" Brown buy a staggering pile of five-dollar chips. Fighting with his desire, Brainard idly chose numbers here and there, and trembled when he saw his empty choices winning time after time.
The whirr of the ball as it sped round the edge of its gleaming disk, lost headway, hesitated for a heart-breaking instant and fell into its destined compartment, was fascinating beyond words. Presently a florid dowager withdrew with a gesture of peevish disappointment, leaving vacant a seat near the middle of her table. "Toodles" Brown was profoundly absorbed in his own gloomy run of luck, and paid no heed to Brainard's modest investment of twenty-five counters worth a dollar each.
The life-saver had little expectation of winning. This was a distraction, an excitement, a part of his rare "day off," and he hung breathless on the surging uncertainty of every play. He noticed that "Toodles" Brown had forsaken his "pet numbers down the middle row," and with a reckless impulse he placed five dollars on each of the trio. The croupier gathered in the stake as callously as if a large part of a surfman's monthly wage had not been lost in this heady plunge.
"I think a zero is about due, and it stands for my prospects all right," thought Brainard as he slid five chips into the space around the "single 0."
The purring ball was uncommonly coy, and Brainard felt his heart thumping while it wavered undecided. When it nestled into its chosen nook, the croupier sung out:
"The single 0 has it."
He pushed a hundred and eighty dollars in chips toward Brainard. The young man flushed through his tan. A wild hope had flared in his heart. He resumed his play with tautened nerves and a softened light in his frank eyes. Belated luck must fall along the "middle row" he thought, and he covered Brown's "pet numbers" with chips, in the squares, on the dividing lines and in the corners. "Seventeen" won, and he gathered in his spoils without trying to count them. Then he threw his chips at random, on numbers and on colors, and the blind goddess was strangely kind almost with every turn of the wheel.
"Toodles" Brown ceased playing and looked at his chum wide-eyed. Brainard was exchanging some stacks of chips for bills, and others for chips of higher values, until he was staking the limit allowed on a number.
"For Heaven's sake call it off!" whispered Brown. "It can't last any longer. Pull out while you're ahead, and let me count it for you. You've nearly two thousand here."
Brainard brushed him aside and feverishly sputtered:
"Don't bother me. I'm playing for the biggest stake in the world. This is my day."
He snatched a fat roll of yellow-backed bills from Brown, and tossed it across the table to the splotch of red. Presently the croupier droned:
"Twenty-four wins, and the red."
The cashier counted Brainard's stake, piled up bills of equal value and shoved the bundle across the table. With tears in his voice Brown begged him to quit as Brainard made one more winning plunge and turned to his friend with a hoarse cry:
"I'm through. Damn it, come on! Let's count the plunder. I've won my freedom."
A few moments later Brainard divided somewhat more than five thousand dollars into two rolls and stuffed them into his trousers pockets. As the two young men passed out of doors, they were startled by the uproar of the wind. The palm crests were whipping to tatters with sibilant lament, and the air was filled with their flying fragments. From the beach came the great call of a raging surf and the sting of spray driven inland. Once, during his cyclonic hours in the "Casino," Brainard had heard the rising storm cry over the roof, but its summons had been unheeded. It had vaguely reminded him of duty, but even now he thought only of his lawless wealth as he strode toward the beach while "Toodles" Brown galloped clumsily in his wake.
When they passed beyond the sheltering lee of the last hotel building, the might of the "norther" buffeted them breathless. Brainard staggered out to the pier and clutched the nearest railing lest he be blown overboard. The rain of spray was drenching his evening clothes as Brown tugged at his coat and strove to pull him toward the hotel.
"Let me cool off," shouted Brainard above the tumult. "I'm going home with you, I tell you, Toodles. I'm going to the Mediterranean with you. I'm going to Italy with you, God bless her! I'm going back where I belong, and the pineapples can go to hell. There's five thousand in my clothes."
Brown thumped him on the back and roared:
"Of course you are, and you deserve your luck. But if you love me, come out of this. I'm a wet rag and you're worse."
For reply Brainard fought his way out along the railing of the pier, and gloried in the night. It matched his own mood. Like the sea, he had broken the bonds that for so long had held him tamed and stagnant. He was drunk with the wine of life, and the storm could not drag his whirling thoughts back to the red-roofed station beyond the Point.
Then the helpless Brown yelled in his ear:
"Turn around, Ash. Over here to the north'ard. Great Scott, what can we do?"
Brainard jumped to the note of alarm in the appeal. The moonlight still spattered across the white-fanged water. Driving along southward, close in shore, they saw a schooner, now a somber blotch, now outlined against the smother that flung itself at her. She seemed to be coming head on for the pier. The picture seared itself into Brainard's very soul. It hurled him back from his glad world regained to the station where he ought to be. But he waited to see if she could clear the pier. In an agony of impatience he crawled out where the sea was breaking clean over the structure, far beyond where Brown dared to follow.
He watched the doomed vessel wallow as she fled before the "norther," watched her lunge past the end of the pier, hardly more than a hundred yards away. By the rifting moonlight he could see that her decks were a tangle of wreckage, her headsails gone or flying in ribbons. She was pelting straight down the coast, helpless to claw off shore, helpless to heave to.
This was what Brainard realized as he groaned:
"She's heading straight for the Point, and she can't be handled to clear it. Or they may be hoping to fetch the Inlet and get inside, and they don't know it's choked up."
As he ran toward the beach, Brainard wondered how he could have forgotten. Why had not the first note of the storm called him home?
He waved a wild gesture of farewell to his friend, and tore down the boardwalk promenade, past the great hotel whose hundreds of windows were ablaze with light. Inside he glimpsed many dancers, and an eddying gust picked up the strains of the orchestra and brought faintly to him the taunting sweetness of a waltz song, "Love Comes Like a Summer Sigh."
It was Surfman Brainard of the Tarpon Inlet Station that plunged off the end of the walk into clogging sand, for the tide had covered all the beach, and he must toil up as far even as the gullied dunes. He kicked off his hampering patent-leather ties, threw his coat after them, and limped over driftwood and gnarled palmetto roots, falling, scrambling, swearing in a frenzy of eagerness to join his comrades. The sand whirled in blinding drifts, and he rubbed his eyes to look for the laboring schooner which vanished in a little while as if she were blotted out.
He remembered that somewhere a road led back into the tangled live-oak and palmetto hammock beyond the sand-hills. With a shout of joy he dove through a gash in the tufted hillocks, and his bare feet found a wagon track in firmer ground. Now the storm wailed overhead, but in darkness that was almost rayless it twisted limbs from the tortured trees and tossed them in Brainard's path; it flung the meshed creepers across his way to trip him headlong.
"She's bound to fetch up a long way this side the station," he grunted, "and the patrol may be at the other end of his beat. And those poor devils can't live long in the sea that's smashing over the Point."
Then he thanked God for the fitness of wind and limb which had come of long months of hardy drill and plain living, for the Inlet was just ahead as he came out on the roaring beach. He looked seaward for a rocket, and shoreward for a signal from the patrol. No light showed anywhere in the gray night.
He splashed across the tide-swept bar, and when the bones of an ancient wreck loomed close by, he knew he was within a mile of home. A dark smudge moved against the white sand-hills, and he fell into the arms of Jim Conklin on patrol.
"Schooner's coming ashore," gasped Brainard. "She passed the head pier, heading straight down and helpless. She was in distress for fair. If she hasn't come this far, she's piled up on the Point. I'll go to the station while you find her and signal us."
Conklin said not a word, but made a bull-like lunge against the storm. When Brainard had roused out the crew, Fritz Wagenhals shouted:
"Our boat is no good for us on the Point. Get out mit the gun."
Six men and the cook stormed up the beach with the life-gun and tackle, and as they toiled through the heavy sand in the teeth of the wind, Brainard was near collapse. But he rallied when they crept out toward the Point, and a red Coston light sputtered and flared ahead. Then Jim Conklin ran back to them waving his torch and crying:
"She's in the breakers on the weather side of the Point. The Boy guessed right. Breaking up fast, she is. Hustle up the gun."
When they sighted the stranded schooner even Brainard, who had foreseen her plight, was amazed at the quick fury of her destruction. The black lump of her hulk lay in a surf which broke sheer over it, and the stump of her mainmast rolled in appealing gestures to the sky. The first shot was fired dead against the wind, and the line fell short. A second and a third failed, and they did not even know whether life was aboard the wreck. At last a quartering shot sent the line across the schooner, and there came feeble twitches, electric pulsations that sent their message to the men ashore as if hands had been clasped across the boiling inferno of white water.
The wreck was breaking up fast. Her timbers strewed the beach, and drifted menacingly in the surf. But with slow, halting effort, the whip-line followed the slender cord of the projectile, and after that the heavy hawser trailed out into the night until the jerky signal came ashore that all was made fast. The surfmen tailed on and the breeches-buoy was dragged shoreward. At length a sodden shape, coughing and groaning, was pulled up on the sand by the men who rushed among the combers. Four more trips the breeches-buoy made, and three more sailors were fetched ashore alive. The last of these was asked how many were left aboard and he gasped:
"Nobody but the skipper, an' he's hangin' on by his toenails."
On shore they waited in vain for a signal, and none came. It was more ominous when the hawser slackened. It was read as a death-warrant when the hawser yielded to the tautening heave of the surfmen, yielded with sickening ease and came washing and writhing in to them, hand over hand, broken adrift from the wreck. The little group on the thundering beach stared across the ghastly water at the dissolving lump of the schooner, knowing by instinct that it would be foolishly futile to shoot another line seaward. They waited, and it was all that they could do.
To young Brainard this suspense was more killing than all the stress through which he had furiously toiled. No light, no sign of life, nothing to tell whether or not death had won in the home stretch!
A rescued seaman, battered and spent, cried out from where he lay on the sand:
"Matt Martin his name is. The Lucy B. was the vessel's. Coal to Havana. Mate washed overboard last night. He's a good skipper, is Martin; looks like that youngster in the white shirt there."
"We'll find him at high-water mark in a day or so," bellowed Fritz Wagenhals. "My Gott, I wish—no, the boat is no good here."
The young man shot his fist seaward.
"I'll try to swim out with a line if you'll let me."
"No, you don't, you tamn fool Boy!" the keeper shouted back.
Brainard doubled along the edge of the beach like a hound baffled by a lost trail. He was almost beside himself with bitter anger at the storm that it should have wrought this cruel climax. It had come as a tremendous revelation to him that he could help to win this great fight against wind and sea. His splendid strength had some place in the world of deeds after all. Fierce joy and thanksgiving had thrilled his every fiber that in this hour he was permitted to be one of the Tarpon Inlet crew. Now to be robbed of the life of the captain of the vessel, to stand like wooden men and let him die who had stayed by his ship for duty's sake—this was more than profoundly sad, it was maddening.Blindly scouting a little way up the beach, Brainard glimpsed a bit of wreckage rearing shoreward, carried beyond the other watchers by some freak of the undertow. It looked like all the other sorry fragments of the schooner, but a second glance showed him a white patch gleaming against the black timber. It might be the tattered foam, but a wild hope halted him in his tracks, and he stood staring at the tumbling mass. The white patch did not vanish, it seemed to move as if writhing against its background, and now he was sure he saw it move. To wait an instant longer was to see the bit of wreckage pounded in the surf as by Titan sledge-hammers. He tore into the first line of foam, head down, arms extended. A few tripping strides, and a wall of water crashed down upon him, solid and resistless. Stunned as he was he dove by instinct, and caught breath beyond the breaker. The fragment of wreckage to which something was clinging rode a few yards beyond him. Again he was flung down and tossed shoreward, and again he dove with fast weakening effort, nor could he see that behind him the other surfmen were struggling to reach him in a hard-gripped human chain.
As he rose, the jagged timber was hurled straight at him like a projectile. He tried to dodge it, flinging out an arm to clutch at something white half wrapped round it. A broken nail or bolt caught his clothing, and dragged him headlong. While he threw his arms about the timber he felt the rags of his trousers tear loose, and he shook himself free of the deadly hold. He was no more than conscious that something stirred as if alive beneath his shifting grip. Presently the surfmen cheered as they hauled ashore the broken beam from which they had to pry loose two half-naked, water-logged, but living men.
Day was breaking when the crew of the schooner, a full muster roll, were helped into the station. The weary surf men gave their bunks to the rescued, and the black cook made strong coffee and corned-beef hash with incredible speed. Brainard fell on the floor like a dead man. But he could not sleep, for the night had been too crowded with racking events. His hurts and exhaustion were forgotten as the evening at the Coquina Beach Hotel came back to him, dimly at first, then focusing more sharply, as if he were recalling things far distant in time and place.
Amid this welter of impressions loomed the fact that magically the means had been provided for him to go back to his own, and more than this, to see her whose message had come as from the dead awakened. As if in a dream, he fumbled for his trousers pockets. Then it came to him that he had been forced to put on Jim Conklin's oilskin breeches while that comrade was half dragging him home from the wreck. He dully wondered why, until beneath the oilskins he found a waistband and a few sodden rags, all that was left of his evening clothes. Pockets were gone, and with them——
"Five thousand dollars," he muttered in dazed, stupid fashion.
Just then a babbling chatter broke from the nearest cot. Brainard raised his head and saw a young man, no older than himself, sitting up and feebly swaying, his wits awry for the moment because of what he had suffered. The captain of the lost schooner wrung his hands and cried, while the tears were on his bruised face:
"No, no, I tell you, the Lucy B. was not insured. . . . I named her after you and she was a lucky vessel. . . . Cut away the rags o' that forestays'l, and we'll bend on somethin' that 'll hold. . . . We've got to heave her to, I tell you. . . . Five thousand dollars clean gone, all I've got and . . . If we can fetch Tarpon Inlet before we founder, we can get inside. . . . The Lucy B. gone to pieces. . . . You're a liar. . . . Why, I just bought out old man Holter's share last voyage. . . . Five thousand dollars, all in the Lucy B. . . . All I've got and——"
Brainard was moved to pity, then amazement, that in this fashion he should be brought face to face with a tragedy so very like his own. But he glimpsed the fact, and was ashamed of it, that he would be stirred to deeper sympathy for the young skipper if there were no womanish wailing over his loss. And then, guilty and remorseful, Brainard realized that his own heart was full of sullen repining, bitter discontent with the fate that had robbed him of his treasure and his hopes, futile outcry against his forced return to the life of the station. He, then, was wholly lacking in that very fortitude which he wished to see displayed by this broken, fevered sailor in the cot, whose misfortune was, by far, the more crushing.
Brainard crawled stiffly outside to be alone. For some time he painfully overhauled his surging thoughts, and slowly there faded from his tired young face the clouding trouble that he had seen mirrored in the face of the boyish captain. Then he said aloud as if it were a verdict:
"A man who can't take his medicine is a pretty tough spectacle, isn't he? And it was all a dream, yes, all a dream—of money I didn't earn, and—and of a girl I can't marry."
He looked through the doorway, saw Jim Conklin slip over to the captain's cot and stroke the hot forehead, and heard him say:
"I know what it is, old man. I've been there myself."
The touch of Conklin's hand seemed to bring the skipper to himself. His slackened mouth closed with the snap of a steel trap, and into his face came the alert and aggressive look of an unbeaten man. He smiled up at Conklin and said weakly:
"I must have been a little upset in my top story. Was I talkin' foolishness? Thank God, we're still alive an' kickin' strong. I'm all right. How are my men? No use crying over spilt milk, is there, shipmate? How's the kid that yanked me ashore?"
Brainard went to his side, repeating as if he were thinking aloud:
"There's no use crying over spilt milk. I dreamed I lost five thousand dollars last night."
"Well, I'll be jiggered, so did I," cheerfully responded the skipper. "But it wasn't no dream for me. It won't make a bit of diiference a hundred years from now, will it? Vessel a total loss, but I'm no total loss, not for a minute. You fished me out, and thanks for a neat job, for I'm pretty fond of just livin'."
Brainard gripped the outstretched hand, and the two young men smiled into each other's eyes. Ashley Brainard was glad that he had found a man, but gladder was he that he had found himself. For in that moment the life-saver routed all his regrets, as he turned to Jim Conklin, with vibrant earnestness and shining face:
"I'm mighty glad of the chance to stay here for a while among you men. For I'm pretty fond of just living, Jim, even if my dreams can't all come true."