Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
V. A Girl Captain
When Wilbur came on deck the morning after the sinking of the bark he was surprised to find the schooner under way again. Wilbur and Charlie had berthed forward during that night--Charlie with the hands, Wilbur in the Captain's hammock. The reason for this change of quarters had been found in a peremptory order from Moran during the dog-watch the preceding evening.
She had looked squarely at Wilbur from under her scowl, and had said briefly and in a fine contralto voice, that he had for the first time noted: "I berth aft, in the cabin; you and the Chinaman forward. Understand?"
Moran had only forestalled Wilbur's intention; while after her almost miraculous piece of seamanship in the rescue of the schooner, Charlie and the Chinese crew accorded her a respect that was almost superstitious.
Wilbur met her again at breakfast. She was still wearing men's clothing--part of Kitchell's outfit--and was booted to the knee; but now she wore no hat, and her enormous mane of rye-colored hair was braided into long strands near to the thickness of a man's arm. The redness of her face gave a startling effect to her pale blue eyes and sandy, heavy eyebrows, that easily lowered to a frown. She ate with her knife, and after pushing away her plate Wilbur observed that she drank half a tumbler of whiskey and water.
The conversation between the two was tame enough. There was no common ground upon which they could meet. To her father's death-- no doubt an old matter even before her rescue--she made no allusion. Her attitude toward Wilbur was one of defiance and suspicion. Only once did she relax:
"How did you come to be aboard here with these rat-eaters--you're no sailor?" she said abruptly.
"Huh!" laughed Wilbur, mirthlessly; "huh! I was shanghaied."
Moran smote the table with a red fist, and shouted with sonorous, bell-toned laughter.
"Shanghaied?--you? Now, that is really good. And what are you going to do now?"
"What are you going to do?"
"Signal the first home-bound vessel and be taken into Frisco. I've my insurance to collect (Wilbur had given her the 'Letty's' papers) and the disaster to report."
"Well, I'm not keen on shark-hunting myself," said Wilbur. But Moran showed no interest in his plans.
However, they soon found that they were not to be permitted to signal. At noon the same day the schooner sighted a steamship's smoke on the horizon, and began to raise her rapidly. Moran immediately bound on the ensign, union down, and broke it out at the peak.
Charlie, who was at the wheel, spoke a sentence in Chinese, and one of the hands drew his knife across the halyards and brought the distress signal to the deck. Moran turned upon Charlie with an oath, her brows knitted.
"No! No!" sang Charlie, closing his eyes and wagging his head. "No! Too muchee los' time; no can stop. You come downside cabin; you an' one-piece boss number two (this was Wilbur) have um chin- chin."
The odd conclave assembled about Kitchell's table--the club-man, the half-masculine girl in men's clothes, and the Chinaman. The conference was an angry one, Wilbur and Moran insisting that they be put aboard the steamship, Charlie refusing with calm obstinacy.
"I have um chin-chin with China boys las' nigh'. China boy heap flaid, no can stop um steamship. Heap flaid too much talkee- talkee. No stop; go fish now; go fish chop-chop. Los' heap time; go fish. I no savvy sail um boat, China boy no savvy sail um boat. I tink um you savvy (and he pointed to Moran). I tink um you savvy plenty heap much disa bay. Boss number two, him no savvy sail um boat, but him savvy plenty many all same.'
"And we're to stop on board your dough-dish and navigate her for you?" shouted Moran, her face blazing.
Charlie nodded blandly: "I tink um yass."
"And when we get back to port," exclaimed Wilbur, "you think, perhaps I--we won't make it interesting for you?"
"I tink um Six Company heap rich."
"Well, get along," ordered Moran, as though the schooner was her property, "and we'll talk it over."
"China boy like you heap pretty big," said Charlie to Moran, as he went out. "You savvy sail um boat all light; wanta you fo' captain. But," he added, suddenly dropping his bland passivity as though he wore a mask, and for an instant allowing the wicked malevolent Cantonese to come to the surface, "China boy no likee funnee business, savvy?" Then with a smile of a Talleyrand he disappeared.
Moran and Wilbur were helpless for the present. They were but two against seven Chinamen. They must stay on board, if the coolies wished it; and if they were to stay it was a matter of their own personal safety that the "Bertha Millner" should be properly navigated.
"I'll captain her," concluded Moran, sullenly, at the end of their talk. "You must act as mate, Mr. Wilbur. And don't get any mistaken idea into your head that, because I'm a young girl and alone, you are going to run things your way. I don't like funny business any better than Charlie."
"Look here," said Wilbur, complaining, "don't think I'm altogether a villain. I think you're a ripping fine girl. You're different from any kind of girl I ever met, of course, but you, by jingo, you're--you're splendid. There in the squall last evening, when you stood at the wheel, with your hair--"
"Oh, drop that!" said the girl, contemptuously, and went up on deck. Wilbur followed, scratching an ear.
Charlie was called aft and their decision announced. Moran would navigate the "Bertha Millner," Wilbur and she taking the watches. Charlie promised that he would answer for the obedience of the men.
Their first concern now was to shape their course for Magdalena Bay. Moran and Wilbur looked over Kitchell's charts and log-book, but the girl flung them aside disdainfully.
"He's been sailing by the dead reckoning, and his navigation is drivel. Why, a cabin-boy would know better; and, to end with, the chronometer is run down. I'll have to get Green'ich time by taking the altitude of a star to-night, and figure out our longitude. Did you bring off our sextant?"
Wilbur shook his head. "Only the papers," he said.
"There's only an old ebony quadrant here," said Moran, "but it will have to do."
That night, lying flat on her back on the deck with a quadrant to her eye, she "got a star and brought it down to the horizon," and sat up under the reeking lamp in the cabin nearly the whole night ciphering and ciphering till she had filled up the four sides of the log-slate with her calculations. However, by daylight she had obtained the correct Greenwich time and worked the schooner's longitude.
Two days passed, then a third. Moran set the schooner's course. She kept almost entirely to herself, and when not at the wheel or taking the sun or writing up the log, gloomed over the after-rail into the schooner's wake. Wilbur knew not what to think of her. Never in his life had he met with any girl like this. So accustomed had she been to the rough, give-and-take, direct associations of a seafaring life that she misinterpreted well- meant politeness--the only respect he knew how to pay her--to mean insidious advances. She was suspicious of him--distrusted him utterly, and openly ridiculed his abortive seamanship. Pretty she was not, but she soon began to have a certain amount of attraction for Wilbur. He liked her splendid ropes of hair, her heavy contralto voice, her fine animal strength of bone and muscle (admittedly greater than his own); he admired her indomitable courage and self-reliance, while her positive genius in the matters of seamanship and navigation filled him with speechless wonder. The girls he had been used to were clever only in their knowledge of the amenities of an afternoon call or the formalities of a paper german. A girl of two-and-twenty who could calculate longitude from the altitude of a star was outside his experience. The more he saw of her the more he knew himself to have been right in his first estimate. She drank whiskey after her meals, and when angry, which was often, swore like a buccaneer. As yet she was almost, as one might say, without sex--savage, unconquered, untamed, glorying in her own independence, her sullen isolation. Her neck was thick, strong, and very white, her hands roughened and calloused. In her men's clothes she looked tall, vigorous, and unrestrained, and on more than one occasion, as Wilbur passed close to her, he was made aware that her hair, her neck, her entire personality exhaled a fine, sweet, natural redolence that savored of the ocean and great winds.
One day, as he saw her handling a huge water-barrel by the chines only, with a strength he knew to be greater than his own, her brows contracted with the effort, her hair curling about her thick neck, her large, round arms bare to the elbow, a sudden thrill of enthusiasm smote through him, and between his teeth he exclaimed to himself:
"By Jove, you're a woman!"
The "Bertha Millner" continued to the southward, gliding quietly over the oil-smoothness of the ocean under airs so light as hardly to ruffle the surface. Sometimes at high noon the shimmer of the ocean floor blended into the shimmer of the sky at the horizon, and then it was no longer water and blue heavens; the little craft seemed to be poised in a vast crystalline sphere, where there was neither height nor depth--poised motionless in warm, coruscating, opalescent space, alone with the sun.
At length one morning the schooner, which for the preceding twenty-four hours had been heading eastward, raised the land, and by the middle of the afternoon had come up to within a mile of a low, sandy shore, quivering with heat, and had tied up to the kelp in Magdalena Bay.
Charlie now took over entire charge of operations. For two days previous the Chinese hands had been getting out the deck-tubs, tackles, gaffs, spades, and the other shark-fishing gear that had been stowed forward. The sails were lowered and gasketed, the decks cleared of all impedimenta, hogsheads and huge vats stood ready in the waist, and the lazy indolence of the previous week was replaced by an extraordinary activity.
The day after their arrival in the bay was occupied by all hands in catching bait. This bait was a kind of rock-fish, of a beautiful red gold color, and about the size of an ordinary cod. They bit readily enough, but out of every ten hooked three were taken off the lines by the sharks before they could be brought aboard. Another difficulty lay in the fact that, either because of the excessive heat in the air or the percentage of alkali in the water, they spoiled almost immediately if left in the air.
Turtle were everywhere--floating gray-green disks just under the surface. Sea-birds in clouds clamored all day long about the shore and sand-pits. At long intervals flying-fish skittered over the water like skipping-stones. Shoals of porpoises came in from outside, leaping clumsily along the edges of the kelp. Bewildered land-birds perched on the schooner's rigging, and in the early morning the whistling of quail could be heard on shore near where a little fresh-water stream ran down to meet the ocean.
It was Wilbur who caught the first shark on the second morning of the "Bertha's" advent in Magdalena Bay. A store of bait had been accumulated, split and halved into chunks for the shark-hooks, and Wilbur, baiting one of the huge lines that had been brought up on deck the evening before, flung it overboard, and watched the glimmer of the white fish-meat turning to a silvery green as it sank down among the kelp. Almost instantly a long moving shadow, just darker than the blue-green mass of the water, identified itself at a little distance.
Enormous flukes proceeded from either side, an erect dorsal fin, like an enormous cock's crest, rose from the back, while immediately over the head swam the two pilot-fish, following so closely the movement of the shark as to give the impression of actually adhering to his body. Twice and three times the great man-eater twelve feet from snout to tail-tip, circled slowly about the bait, the flukes moving fan-like through the water. Once he came up, touched the bait with his nose, and backed easily away. He disappeared, returned, and poised himself motionless in the schooner's shadow, feeling the water with his flukes.
Moran was looking over Wilbur's shoulder. "He's as good as caught," she muttered; "once let them get sight of meat, and-- Steady now!" The shark moved forward. Suddenly, with a long, easy roll, he turned completely upon his back. His white belly flashed like silver in the water--the bait disappeared.
"You've got him!" shouted Moran.
The rope slid through Wilbur's palms, burning the skin as the huge sea-wolf sounded. Moran laid hold. The heavy, sullen wrenching from below twitched and swayed their bodies and threw them against each other. Her bare, cool arm was pressed close over his knuckles.
"Heave!" she cried, laughing with the excitement of the moment. "Heave all!"--she began the chant of sailors hauling at the ropes. Together, and bracing their feet against the schooner's rail, they fought out the fight with the great fish. In a swirl of lather the head and shoulders came above the surface, the flukes churning the water till it boiled like the wake of a screw steamship. But as soon as these great fins were clear of the surface the shark fell quiet and helpless.
Charlie came up with the cutting-in spade, and as the fish hung still over the side, cut him open from neck to belly with a single movement. Another Chinaman stood by with a long-handled gaff, hooked out the purple-black liver, brought it over the side, and dropped it into one of the deck-tubs. The shark thrashed and writhed, his flukes quivering and his gills distended. Wilbur could not restrain an exclamation.
"Brutal business!" he muttered.
"Hoh!" exclaimed Moran, scornfully, "cutting-in is too good for him. Sailor-folk are no friends of such carrion as that."
Other lines were baited and dropped overboard, and the hands settled themselves to the real business of the expedition. There was no skill in the matter. The sharks bit ravenously, and soon swarmed about the schooner in hundreds. Hardly a half minute passed that one of the four Chinamen that were fishing did not signal a catch, and Charlie and Jim were kept busy with spade and gaff. By noon the deck-tubs were full. The lines were hauled in, and the hands set the tubs in the sun to try out the oil. Under the tropical heat the shark livers almost visibly melted away, and by four o'clock in the afternoon the tubs were full of a thick, yellow oil, the reek of which instantly recalled to Wilbur's mind the rancid smell of the schooner on the day when he had first come aboard of her. The deck-tubs were emptied into the hogsheads and vats that stood in the waist of the "Bertha," the tubs scoured, and the lines and bent shark-hooks overhauled. Charlie disappeared in the galley, supper was cooked, and eaten upon deck under the conflagration of the sunset; the lights were set, the Chinamen foregathered in the fo'c'stle head, smoking opium, and by eight o'clock the routine of the day was at an end.
So the time passed. In a short time Wilbur could not have said whether the day was Wednesday or Sunday. He soon tired of the unsportsmanlike work of killing the sluggish brutes, and turned shoreward to relieve the monotony of the succeeding days. He and Moran were left a good deal to their own devices. Charlie was the master of the men now. "Mate," said Moran to Wilbur one day, after a dinner of turtle steaks and fish, eaten in the open air on the quarterdeck; "mate, this is slow work, and the schooner smells terribly foul. We'll have the dory out and go ashore. We can tumble a cask into her and get some water. The butt's three- quarters empty. Let's see how it feels to be in Mexico."
"Mexico?" said Wilbur. "That's so--Lower California is Mexico. I'd forgotten that!"
They went ashore and spent the afternoon in filling the water-cask from the fresh-water stream and in gathering abalones, which Moran declared were delicious eating, from the rocks left bare by the tide. But nothing could have exceeded the loneliness of that shore and backland, palpitating under the flogging of a tropical sun. Low hills of sand, covered with brush, stretched back from the shore. On the eastern horizon, leagues distant, blue masses of mountain striated with mirages swam in the scorching air.
The sand was like fire to the touch. Far out in the bay the schooner hung motionless under bare sticks, resting apparently upon her inverted shadow only. And that was all--the flat, heat- ridden land, the sheen of the open Pacific, and the lonely schooner.
"Quiet enough," said Wilbur, in a low voice, wondering if there was such a place as San Francisco, with its paved streets and cable cars, and if people who had been his friends there had ever had any real existence.
"Do you like it?" asked Moran quickly, facing him, her thumbs in her belt.
"It's good fun--how about you?"
"It's no different than the only life I've known. I suppose you think it s a queer kind of life for a girl. I've lived by doing things, not by thinking things, or reading about what other people have done or thought; and I guess it's what you do that counts, rather than what you think or read about. Where's that pinch-bar? We'll get a couple more abalones for supper, and then put off."
That was the only talk of moment they had during the afternoon. All the rest of their conversation had been of those things that immediately occupied their attention.
They regained the schooner toward five o'clock, to find the Chinamen perplexed and mystified. No explanation was forthcoming, and Charlie gave them supper in preoccupied silence. As they were eating the abalones, which Moran had fried in batter, Charlie said:
"Shark all gone! No more catch um--him all gone."
"No savvy," said Charlie. "No likee, no likee. China boy tink um heap funny, too much heap funny."
It was true. During all the next day not a shark was in sight, and though the crew fished assiduously till dark, they were rewarded by not so much as a bite. No one could offer any explanation.
"'Tis strange," said Moran. "Never heard of shark leaving this feed before. And you can see with half an eye that the hands don't like the looks of it. Superstitious beggars! they need to be clumped in the head."
That same night Wilbur woke in his hammock on the fo'c'stle head about half-past two. The moon was down, the sky one powder of stars. There was not a breath of wind. It was so still that he could hear some large fish playing and breaking off toward the shore. Then, without the least warning, he felt the schooner begin to lift under him. He rolled out of his hammock and stood on the deck. There could be no doubt of it--the whole forepart was rising beneath him. He could see the bowsprit moving upward from star to star. Still the schooner lifted; objects on deck began to slide aft; the oil in the deck-tubs washed over; then, as there came a wild scrambling of the Chinese crew up the fo'c'stle hatch, she settled again gradually at first, then, with an abrupt lurch that almost threw him from his feet, regained her level. Moran met him in the waist. Charlie came running aft.
"What was that? Are we grounding? Has she struck?"
"No, no; we're still fast to the kelp. Was it a tidal wave?"
"Nonsense. It wouldn't have handled us that way."
"Well, what was it? Listen! For God's sake keep quiet there forward!"
Wilbur looked over the side into the water. The ripples were still chasing themselves away from the schooner. There was nothing else. The stillness shut down again. There was not a sound.