XIII. Moran Sternersen
 

San Francisco once more! For two days the "Bertha Millner" had been beating up the coast, fighting her way against northerly winds, butting into head seas.

The warmth, the stillness, the placid, drowsing quiet of Magdalena Bay, steaming under the golden eye of a tropic heaven, the white, baked beach, the bay-heads, striated with the mirage in the morning, the coruscating sunset, the enchanted mystery of the purple night, with its sheen of stars and riding moon, were now replaced by the hale and vigorous snorting of the Trades, the roll of breakers to landward, and the unremitting gallop of the unnumbered multitudes of gray-green seas, careering silently past the schooner, their crests occasionally hissing into brusque eruptions of white froth, or smiting broad on under her counter, showering her decks with a sprout of icy spray. It was cold; at times thick fogs cloaked all the world of water. To the east a procession of bleak hills defiled slowly southward; lighthouses were passed; streamers of smoke on the western horizon marked the passage of steamships; and once they met and passed close by a huge Cape Horner, a great deep-sea tramp, all sails set and drawing, rolling slowly and leisurely in seas that made the schooner dance.

At last the Farallones looked over the ocean's edge to the north; then came the whistling-buoy, the Seal Rocks, the Heads, Point Reyes, the Golden Gate flanked with the old red Presidio, Lime Point with its watching cannon; and by noon of a gray and boisterous day, under a lusty wind and a slant of rain, just five months after her departure, the "Bertha Millner" let go her anchor in San Francisco Bay some few hundred yards off the Lifeboat Station.

In this berth the schooner was still three or four miles from the city and the water-front. But Moran detested any nearer approach to civilization, and Wilbur himself was willing to avoid, at least for one day, the publicity which he believed the "Bertha's" reappearance was sure to attract. He remembered, too, that the little boat carried with her a fortune of $100,000, and decided that until it could be safely landed and stored it was not desirable that its existence should be known along "the Front."

For days, weeks even, Wilbur had looked eagerly forward to this return to his home. He had seen himself again in his former haunts, in his club, and in the houses along Pacific avenue where he was received; but no sooner had the anchor-chain ceased rattling in the "Bertha's" hawse-pipe than a strange revulsion came upon him. The new man that seemed to have so suddenly sprung to life within him, the Wilbur who was the mate of the "Bertha Millner," the Wilbur who belonged to Moran, believed that he could see nothing to be desired in city life. For him was the unsteady deck of a schooner, and the great winds and the tremendous wheel of the ocean's rim, and the horizon that ever fled before his following prow; so he told himself, so he believed. What attractions could the city offer him? What amusements? what excitements? He had been flung off the smoothly spinning circumference of well-ordered life out into the void.

He had known romance, and the spell of the great, simple, and primitive emotions; he had sat down to eat with buccaneers; he had seen the fierce, quick leap of unleashed passions, and had felt death swoop close at his nape and pass like a swift spurt of cold air. City life, his old life, had no charm for him now. Wilbur honestly believed that he was changed to his heart's core. He thought that, like Moran, he was henceforth to be a sailor of the sea, a rover, and he saw the rest of his existence passed with her, aboard their faithful little schooner. They would have the whole round world as their playground; they held the earth and the great seas in fief; there was no one to let or to hinder. They two belonged to each other. Once outside the Heads again, and they swept the land of cities and of little things behind them, and they two were left alone once more; alone in the great world of romance.

About an hour after her arrival off the station, while Hoang and the hands were furling the jib and foresail and getting the dory over the side, Moran remarked to Wilbur:

"It's good we came in when we did, mate; the glass is going down fast, and the wind's breezing up from the west; we're going to have a blow; the tide will be going out in a little while, and we never could have come in against wind and tide."

"Moran," said Wilbur, "I'm going ashore--into the station here; there's a telephone line there; see the wires? I can't so much as turn my hand over before I have some shore-going clothes. What do you suppose they would do to me if I appeared on Kearney Street in this outfit? I'll ring up Langley & Michaels--they are the wholesale chemists in town--and have their agent come out here and talk business to us about our ambergris. We've got to pay the men their prize-money; then as soon as we get our own money in hand we can talk about overhauling and outfitting the 'Bertha.'"

Moran refused to accompany him ashore and into the Lifeboat Station. Roofed houses were an object of suspicion to her. Already she had begun to be uneasy at the distant sight of the city of San Francisco, Nob, Telegraph, Russian, and Rincon hills, all swarming with buildings and grooved with streets; even the land-locked harbor fretted her. Wilbur could see she felt imprisoned, confined. When he had pointed out the Palace Hotel to her--a vast gray cube in the distance, overtopping the surrounding roofs--she had sworn under her breath.

"And people can live there, good heavens! Why not rabbit-burrows, and be done with it? Mate, how soon can we be out to sea again? I hate this place."

Wilbur found the captain of the Lifeboat Station in the act of sitting down to a dinner of boiled beef and cabbage. He was a strongly built well-looking man, with the air more of a soldier than a sailor. He had already been studying the schooner through his front window and had recognized her, and at once asked Wilbur news of Captain Kitchell. Wilbur told him as much of his story as was necessary, but from the captain's talk he gathered that the news of his return had long since been wired from Coronado, and that it would be impossible to avoid a nine days' notoriety. The captain of the station (his name was Hodgson) made Wilbur royally welcome, insisted upon his dining with him, and himself called up Langley & Michaels as soon as the meal was over.

It was he who offered the only plausible solution of the mystery of the lifting and shaking of the schooner and the wrecking of the junk. Though Wilbur was not satisfied with Hodgson's explanation, it was the only one he ever heard.

When he had spoken of the matter, Hodgson had nodded his head. "Sulphur-bottoms," he said.

"Sulphur-bottoms?"

"Yes; they're a kind of right-whale; they get barnacles and a kind of marine lice on their backs, and come up and scratch them selves against a ship's keel, just like a hog under a fence."

When Wilbur's business was done, and he was making ready to return to the schooner, Hodgson remarked suddenly: "Hear you've got a strapping fine girl aboard with you. Where did you fall in with her?" and he winked and grinned.

Wilbur started as though struck, and took himself hurriedly away; but the man's words had touched off in his brain a veritable mine of conjecture. Moran in Magdalena Bay was consistent, congruous, and fitted into her environment. But how--how was Wilbur to explain her to San Francisco, and how could his behavior seem else than ridiculous to the men of his club and to the women whose dinner invitations he was wont to receive? They could not understand the change that had been wrought in him; they did not know Moran, the savage, half-tamed Valkyrie so suddenly become a woman. Hurry as he would, the schooner could not be put to sea again within a fortnight. Even though he elected to live aboard in the meanwhile, the very business of her preparation would call him to the city again and again. Moran could not be kept a secret. As it was, all the world knew of her by now. On the other hand he could easily understand her position; to her it seemed simplicity itself that they two who loved each other should sail away and pass their lives together upon the sea, as she and her father had done before.

Like most men, Wilbur had to walk when he was thinking hard. He sent the dory back to the schooner with word to Moran that he would take a walk around the beach and return in an hour or two. He set off along the shore in the direction of Fort Mason, the old red-brick fort at the entrance to the Golden Gate. At this point in the Presidio Government reservation the land is solitary. Wilbur followed the line of the beach to the old fort; and there, on the very threshold of the Western world, at the very outpost of civilization, sat down in the lee of the crumbling fortification, and scene by scene reviewed the extraordinary events of the past six months.

In front of him ran the narrow channel of the Golden Gate; to his right was the bay and the city; at his left the open Pacific.

He saw himself the day of his advent aboard the "Bertha" in his top hat and frock coat; saw himself later "braking down" at the windlass, the "Petrel" within hailing distance.

Then the pictures began to thicken fast: the derelict bark "Lady Letty" rolling to her scuppers, abandoned and lonely; the "boy" in the wheel-box; Kitchell wrenching open the desk in the captain's stateroom; Captain Sternersen buried at sea, his false teeth upside down; the black fury of the squall, and Moran at the wheel; Moran lying at full length on the deck, getting the altitude of a star; Magdalena Bay; the shark-fishing; the mysterious lifting and shuddering of the schooner; the beach-combers' junk, with its staring red eyes; Hoang, naked to the waist, gleaming with sweat and whale-oil; the ambergris; the race to beach the sinking schooner; the never-to-be-forgotten night when he and Moran had camped together on the beach; Hoang taken prisoner, and the hideous filing of his teeth; the beach-combers, silent and watchful behind their sand breastworks; the Chinaman he had killed twitching and hic-coughing at his feet; Moran turned Berserker, bursting down upon him through a haze of smoke; Charlie dying in the hammock aboard the schooner, ordering his funeral with its "four-piecee horse"; Coronado; the incongruous scene in the ballroom; and, last of all, Josie Herrick in white duck and kid shoes, giving her hand to Moran in her boots and belt, hatless as ever, her sleeves rolled up to above the elbows, her white, strong arm extended, her ruddy face, and pale, milk-blue eyes gravely observant, her heavy braids, yellow as ripening rye, hanging over her shoulder and breast.

A sudden explosion of cold wind, striking down blanket-wise and bewildering from out the west, made Wilbur look up quickly. The gray sky seemed scudding along close overhead. The bay, the narrow channel of the Golden Gate, the outside ocean, were all whitening with crests of waves. At his feet the huge green ground-swells thundered to the attack of the fort's granite foundations. Through the Gate, the bay seemed rushing out to the Pacific. A bewildered gull shot by, tacking and slanting against the gusts that would drive it out to sea. Evidently the storm was not far off. Wilbur rose to his feet, and saw the "Bertha Millner," close in, unbridled and free as a runaway horse, headed directly for the open sea, and rushing on with all the impetus of wind and tide!