Part I. The Man and the Brig
Chapter III
 

After waiting a moment, Carter went on deck. The sky, the sea, the brig itself had disappeared in a darkness that had become impenetrable, palpable, and stifling. An immense cloud had come up running over the heavens, as if looking for the little craft, and now hung over it, arrested. To the south there was a livid trembling gleam, faint and sad, like a vanishing memory of destroyed starlight. To the north, as if to prove the impossible, an incredibly blacker patch outlined on the tremendous blackness of the sky the heart of the coming squall. The glimmers in the water had gone out and the invisible sea all around lay mute and still as if it had died suddenly of fright.

Carter could see nothing. He felt about him people moving; he heard them in the darkness whispering faintly as if they had been exchanging secrets important or infamous. The night effaced even words, and its mystery had captured everything and every sound-- had left nothing free but the unexpected that seemed to hover about one, ready to stretch out its stealthy hand in a touch sudden, familiar, and appalling. Even the careless disposition of the young ex-officer of an opium-clipper was affected by the ominous aspect of the hour. What was this vessel? What were those people? What would happen to-morrow? To the yacht? To himself? He felt suddenly without any additional reason but the darkness that it was a poor show, anyhow, a dashed poor show for all hands. The irrational conviction made him falter for a second where he stood and he gripped the slide of the companionway hard.

Shaw's voice right close to his ear relieved and cleared his troubled thoughts.

"Oh! it's you, Mister. Come up at last," said the mate of the brig slowly. "It appears we've got to give you a tow now. Of all the rum in-cidents, this beats all. A boat sneaks up from nowhere and turns out to be a long-expected friend! For you are one of them friends the skipper was going to meet somewhere here. Ain't you now? Come! I know more than you may think. Are we off to--you may just as well tell--off to--h'm ha . . . you know?"

"Yes. I know. Don't you?" articulated Carter, innocently.

Shaw remained very quiet for a minute.

"Where's my skipper?" he asked at last.

"I left him down below in a kind of trance. Where's my boat?"

"Your boat is hanging astern. And my opinion is that you are as uncivil as I've proved you to be untruthful. Egzz-actly."

Carter stumbled toward the taffrail and in the first step he made came full against somebody who glided away. It seemed to him that such a night brings men to a lower level. He thought that he might have been knocked on the head by anybody strong enough to lift a crow-bar. He felt strangely irritated. He said loudly, aiming his words at Shaw whom he supposed somewhere near:

"And my opinion is that you and your skipper will come to a sudden bad end before--"

"I thought you were in your boat. Have you changed your mind?" asked Lingard in his deep voice close to Carter's elbow.

Carter felt his way along the rail, till his hand found a line that seemed, in the calm, to stream out of its own accord into the darkness. He hailed his boat, and directly heard the wash of water against her bows as she was hauled quickly under the counter. Then he loomed up shapeless on the rail, and the next moment disappeared as if he had fallen out of the universe. Lingard heard him say:

"Catch hold of my leg, John." There were hollow sounds in the boat; a voice growled, "All right."

"Keep clear of the counter," said Lingard, speaking in quiet warning tones into the night. "The brig may get a lot of sternway on her should this squall not strike her fairly."

"Aye, aye. I will mind," was the muttered answer from the water.

Lingard crossed over to the port side, and looked steadily at the sooty mass of approaching vapours. After a moment he said curtly, "Brace up for the port tack, Mr. Shaw," and remained silent, with his face to the sea. A sound, sorrowful and startling like the sigh of some immense creature, travelling across the starless space, passed above the vertical and lofty spars of the motionless brig.

It grew louder, then suddenly ceased for a moment, and the taut rigging of the brig was heard vibrating its answer in a singing note to this threatening murmur of the winds. A long and slow undulation lifted the level of the waters, as if the sea had drawn a deep breath of anxious suspense. The next minute an immense disturbance leaped out of the darkness upon the sea, kindling upon it a livid clearness of foam, and the first gust of the squall boarded the brig in a stinging flick of rain and spray. As if overwhelmed by the suddenness of the fierce onset, the vessel remained for a second upright where she floated, shaking with tremendous jerks from trucks to keel; while high up in the night the invisible canvas was heard rattling and beating about violently.

Then, with a quick double report, as of heavy guns, both topsails filled at once and the brig fell over swiftly on her side. Shaw was thrown headlong against the skylight, and Lingard, who had encircled the weather rail with his arm, felt the vessel under his feet dart forward smoothly, and the deck become less slanting--the speed of the brig running off a little now, easing the overturning strain of the wind upon the distended surfaces of the sails. It was only the fineness of the little vessel's lines and the perfect shape of her hull that saved the canvas, and perhaps the spars, by enabling the ready craft to get way upon herself with such lightning-like rapidity. Lingard drew a long breath and yelled jubilantly at Shaw who was struggling up against wind and rain to his commander's side.

"She'll do. Hold on everything."

Shaw tried to speak. He swallowed great mouthfuls of tepid water which the wind drove down his throat. The brig seemed to sail through undulating waves that passed swishing between the masts and swept over the decks with the fierce rush and noise of a cataract. From every spar and every rope a ragged sheet of water streamed flicking to leeward. The overpowering deluge seemed to last for an age; became unbearable--and, all at once, stopped. In a couple of minutes the shower had run its length over the brig and now could be seen like a straight grey wall, going away into the night under the fierce whispering of dissolving clouds. The wind eased. To the northward, low down in the darkness, three stars appeared in a row, leaping in and out between the crests of waves like the distant heads of swimmers in a running surf; and the retreating edge of the cloud, perfectly straight from east to west, slipped along the dome of the sky like an immense hemispheric, iron shutter pivoting down smoothly as if operated by some mighty engine. An inspiring and penetrating freshness flowed together with the shimmer of light, through the augmented glory of the heaven, a glory exalted, undimmed, and strangely startling as if a new world had been created during the short flight of the stormy cloud. It was a return to life, a return to space; the earth coming out from under a pall to take its place in the renewed and immense scintillation of the universe.

The brig, her yards slightly checked in, ran with an easy motion under the topsails, jib and driver, pushing contemptuously aside the turbulent crowd of noisy and agitated waves. As the craft went swiftly ahead she unrolled behind her over the uneasy darkness of the sea a broad ribbon of seething foam shot with wispy gleams of dark discs escaping from under the rudder. Far away astern, at the end of a line no thicker than a black thread, which dipped now and then its long curve in the bursting froth, a toy-like object could be made out, elongated and dark, racing after the brig over the snowy whiteness of her wake.

Lingard walked aft, and, with both his hands on the taffrail, looked eagerly for Carter's boat. The first glance satisfied him that the yacht's gig was towing easily at the end of the long scope of line, and he turned away to look ahead and to leeward with a steady gaze. It was then half an hour past midnight and Shaw, relieved by Wasub, had gone below. Before he went, he said to Lingard, "I will be off, sir, if you're not going to make more sail yet." "Not yet for a while," had answered Lingard in a preoccupied manner; and Shaw departed aggrieved at such a neglect of making the best of a good breeze.

On the main deck dark-skinned men, whose clothing clung to their shivering limbs as if they had been overboard, had finished recoiling the braces, and clearing the gear. The kassab, after having hung the fore-topsail halyards in the becket, strutted into the waist toward a row of men who stood idly with their shoulders against the side of the long boat amidships. He passed along looking up close at the stolid faces. Room was made for him, and he took his place at the end.

"It was a great rain and a mighty wind, O men," he said, dogmatically, "but no wind can ever hurt this ship. That I knew while I stood minding the sail which is under my care."

A dull and inexpressive murmur was heard from the men. Over the high weather rail, a topping wave flung into their eyes a handful of heavy drops that stung like hail. There were low groans of indignation. A man sighed. Another emitted a spasmodic laugh through his chattering teeth. No one moved away. The little kassab wiped his face and went on in his cracked voice, to the accompaniment of the swishing sounds made by the seas that swept regularly astern along the ship's side.

"Have you heard him shout at the wind--louder than the wind? I have heard, being far forward. And before, too, in the many years I served this white man I have heard him often cry magic words that make all safe. Ya-wa! This is truth. Ask Wasub who is a Haji, even as I am."

"I have seen white men's ships with their masts broken--also wrecked like our own praus," remarked sadly a lean, lank fellow who shivered beside the kassab, hanging his head and trying to grasp his shoulder blades.

"True," admitted the kassab. "They are all the children of Satan but to some more favour is shown. To obey such men on the sea or in a fight is good. I saw him who is master here fight with wild men who eat their enemies--far away to the eastward--and I dealt blows by his side without fear; for the charms he, no doubt, possesses protect his servants also. I am a believer and the Stoned One can not touch my forehead. Yet the reward of victory comes from the accursed. For six years have I sailed with that white man; first as one who minds the rudder, for I am a man of the sea, born in a prau, and am skilled in such work. And now, because of my great knowledge of his desires, I have the care of all things in this ship."

Several voices muttered, "True. True." They remained apathetic and patient, in the rush of wind, under the repeated short flights of sprays. The slight roll of the ship balanced them stiffly all together where they stood propped against the big boat. The breeze humming between the inclined masts enveloped their dark and silent figures in the unceasing resonance of its breath.

The brig's head had been laid so as to pass a little to windward of the small islands of the Carimata group. They had been till then hidden in the night, but now both men on the lookout reported land ahead in one long cry. Lingard, standing to leeward abreast of the wheel, watched the islet first seen. When it was nearly abeam of the brig he gave his orders, and Wasub hurried off to the main deck. The helm was put down, the yards on the main came slowly square and the wet canvas of the main-topsail clung suddenly to the mast after a single heavy flap. The dazzling streak of the ship's wake vanished. The vessel lost her way and began to dip her bows into the quick succession of the running head seas. And at every slow plunge of the craft, the song of the wind would swell louder amongst the waving spars, with a wild and mournful note.

Just as the brig's boat had been swung out, ready for lowering, the yacht's gig hauled up by its line appeared tossing and splashing on the lee quarter. Carter stood up in the stern sheets balancing himself cleverly to the disordered motion of his cockleshell. He hailed the brig twice to know what was the matter, not being able from below and in the darkness to make out what that confused group of men on the poop were about. He got no answer, though he could see the shape of a man standing by himself aft, and apparently watching him. He was going to repeat his hail for the third time when he heard the rattling of tackles followed by a heavy splash, a burst of voices, scrambling hollow sounds--and a dark mass detaching itself from the brig's side swept past him on the crest of a passing wave. For less than a second he could see on the shimmer of the night sky the shape of a boat, the heads of men, the blades of oars pointing upward while being got out hurriedly. Then all this sank out of sight, reappeared once more far off and hardly discernible, before vanishing for good.

"Why, they've lowered a boat!" exclaimed Carter, falling back in his seat. He remembered that he had seen only a few hours ago three native praus lurking amongst those very islands. For a moment he had the idea of casting off to go in chase of that boat, so as to find out. . . . Find out what? He gave up his idea at once. What could he do?

The conviction that the yacht, and everything belonging to her, were in some indefinite but very real danger, took afresh a strong hold of him, and the persuasion that the master of the brig was going there to help did not by any means assuage his alarm. The fact only served to complicate his uneasiness with a sense of mystery.

The white man who spoke as if that sea was all his own, or as if people intruded upon his privacy by taking the liberty of getting wrecked on a coast where he and his friends did some queer business, seemed to him an undesirable helper. That the boat had been lowered to communicate with the praus seen and avoided by him in the evening he had no doubt. The thought had flashed on him at once. It had an ugly look. Yet the best thing to do after all was to hang on and get back to the yacht and warn them. . . . Warn them against whom? The man had been perfectly open with him. Warn them against what? It struck him that he hadn't the slightest conception of what would happen, of what was even likely to happen. That strange rescuer himself was bringing the news of danger. Danger from the natives of course. And yet he was in communication with those natives. That was evident. That boat going off in the night. . . . Carter swore heartily to himself. His perplexity became positive bodily pain as he sat, wet, uncomfortable, and still, one hand on the tiller, thrown up and down in headlong swings of his boat. And before his eyes, towering high, the black hull of the brig also rose and fell, setting her stern down in the sea, now and again, with a tremendous and foaming splash. Not a sound from her reached Carter's ears. She seemed an abandoned craft but for the outline of a man's head and body still visible in a watchful attitude above the taffrail.

Carter told his bowman to haul up closer and hailed:

"Brig ahoy. Anything wrong?"

He waited, listening. The shadowy man still watched. After some time a curt "No" came back in answer.

"Are you going to keep hove-to long?" shouted Carter.

"Don't know. Not long. Drop your boat clear of the ship. Drop clear. Do damage if you don't."

"Slack away, John!" said Carter in a resigned tone to the elderly seaman in the bow. "Slack away and let us ride easy to the full scope. They don't seem very talkative on board there."

Even while he was speaking the line ran out and the regular undulations of the passing seas drove the boat away from the brig. Carter turned a little in his seat to look at the land. It loomed up dead to leeward like a lofty and irregular cone only a mile or a mile and a half distant. The noise of the surf beating upon its base was heard against the wind in measured detonations. The fatigue of many days spent in the boat asserted itself above the restlessness of Carter's thoughts and, gradually, he lost the notion of the passing time without altogether losing the consciousness of his situation.

In the intervals of that benumbed stupor--rather than sleep--he was aware that the interrupted noise of the surf had grown into a continuous great rumble, swelling periodically into a loud roar; that the high islet appeared now bigger, and that a white fringe of foam was visible at its feet. Still there was no stir or movement of any kind on board the brig. He noticed that the wind was moderating and the sea going down with it, and then dozed off again for a minute. When next he opened his eyes with a start, it was just in time to see with surprise a new star soar noiselessly straight up from behind the land, take up its position in a brilliant constellation--and go out suddenly. Two more followed, ascending together, and after reaching about the same elevation, expired side by side.

"Them's rockets, sir--ain't they?" said one of the men in a muffled voice.

"Aye, rockets," grunted Carter. "And now, what's the next move?" he muttered to himself dismally.

He got his answer in the fierce swishing whirr of a slender ray of fire that, shooting violently upward from the sombre hull of the brig, dissolved at once into a dull red shower of falling sparks. Only one, white and brilliant, remained alone poised high overhead, and after glowing vividly for a second, exploded with a feeble report. Almost at the same time he saw the brig's head fall off the wind, made out the yards swinging round to fill the main topsail, and heard distinctly the thud of the first wave thrown off by the advancing bows. The next minute the tow-line got the strain and his boat started hurriedly after the brig with a sudden jerk.

Leaning forward, wide awake and attentive, Carter steered. His men sat one behind another with shoulders up, and arched backs, dozing, uncomfortable but patient, upon the thwarts. The care requisite to steer the boat properly in the track of the seething and disturbed water left by the brig in her rapid course prevented him from reflecting much upon the incertitude of the future and upon his own unusual situation.

Now he was only exceedingly anxious to see the yacht again, and it was with a feeling of very real satisfaction that he saw all plain sail being made on the brig. Through the remaining hours of the night he sat grasping the tiller and keeping his eyes on the shadowy and high pyramid of canvas gliding steadily ahead of his boat with a slight balancing movement from side to side.