Moran of the Lady Letty by Frank Norris
VIII. A Run for Land
"Sinking!" exclaimed Wilbur.
Moran was already on her feet. "We'll have to beach her," she cried, "and we're six miles out. Up y'r jib, mate!" The two set the jib, flying-jib, and staysails.
The fore and main sails were already drawing, and under all the spread of her canvas the "Bertha" raced back toward the shore.
But by the time she was within the head of the bay her stern had settled to such an extent that the forefoot was clear of the water, the bowsprit pointing high into the heavens. Moran was at the wheel, her scowl thicker than ever, her eyes measuring the stretch of water that lay between the schooner and the shore.
"She'll never make it in God's world," she muttered as she listened to the wash of the water in the cabin under her feet. In the hold, empty barrels were afloat, knocking hollowly against each other. "We're in a bad way, mate."
"If it comes to that," returned Wilbur, surprised to see her thus easily downcast, who was usually so indomitable--"if it comes to that, we can swim for it--a couple of planks--"
"Swim?" she echoed; "I'm not thinking of that; of course we could swim."
Wilbur's teeth clicked sharply together. He could think of nothing to say.
As the water gained between decks the schooner's speed dwindled, and at the same time as she approached the shore the wind, shut off by the land, fell away. By this time the ocean was not four inches below the stern-rail. Two miles away was the nearest sand- spit. Wilbur broke out a distress signal on the foremast, in the hope that Charlie and the deserters might send off the dory to their assistance. But the deserters were nowhere in sight.
"What became of the junk?" he demanded suddenly of Moran. She motioned to the westward with her head. "Still lying out-side."
Twenty minutes passed. Once only Moran spoke.
"When she begins to go," she said, "she'll go with a rush. Jump pretty wide, or you'll get caught in the suction."
The two had given up all hope. Moran held grimly to the wheel as a mere matter of form. Wilbur stood at her side, his clinched fists thrust into his pockets. The eyes of both were fixed on the yellow line of the distant beach. By and by Moran turned to him with an odd smile.
"We're a strange pair to die together," she said. Wilbur met her eyes an instant, but finding no reply, put his chin in the air as though he would have told her she might well say that.
"A strange pair to die together," Moran repeated; "but we can do that better than we could have"--she looked away from him--"could have lived together," she finished, and smiled again.
"And yet," said Wilbur, "these last few weeks here on board the schooner, we have been through a good deal--together. I don't know," he went on clumsily, "I don't know when I've been--when I've had--I've been happier than these last weeks. It is queer, isn't it? I know, of course, what you'll say. I've said it to myself often of late. I belong to the city and to my life there, and you--you belong to the ocean. I never knew a girl like you-- never knew a girl could be like you. You don't know how extraordinary it all seems to me. You swear like a man, and you dress like a man, and I don't suppose you've ever been associated with other women; and you're strong--I know you are as strong as I am. You have no idea how different you are to the kind of girl I've known. Imagine my kind of girl standing up before Hoang and those cutthroat beach-combers with their knives and hatchets. Maybe it's because you are so unlike my kind of girl that--that things are as they are with me. I don't know. It's a queer situation. A month or so ago I was at a tea in San Francisco, and now I'm aboard a shark-fishing schooner sinking in Magdalena Bay; and I'm with a girl that--that--that I--well, I'm with you, and, well, you know how it is--I might as well say it--I love you more than I imagined I ever could love a girl."
Moran's frown came back to her forehead.
"I don't like that kind of talk," she said; "I am not used to it, and I don't know how to take it. Believe me," she said with a half laugh, "it's all wasted. I never could love a man. I'm not made for men."
"No," said Wilbur, "nor for other women either."
"Nor for other women either."
Wilbur fell silent. In that instant he had a distinct vision of Moran's life and character, shunning men and shunned of women, a strange, lonely creature, solitary as the ocean whereon she lived, beautiful after her fashion; as yet without sex, proud, untamed, splendid in her savage, primal independence--a thing untouched and unsullied by civilization. She seemed to him some Bradamante, some mythical Brunhilde, some Valkyrie of the legends, born out of season, lost and unfamiliar in this end-of-the-century time. Her purity was the purity of primeval glaciers. He could easily see how to such a girl the love of a man would appear only in the light of a humiliation--a degradation. And yet she could love, else how had he been able to love her? Wilbur found himself--even at that moment--wondering how the thing could be done--wondering to just what note the untouched cords would vibrate. Just how she should be awakened one morning to find that she--Moran, sea-rover, virgin unconquered, without law, without land, without sex--was, after all, a woman.
"By God, mate!" she exclaimed of a sudden. "The barrels are keeping us up--the empty barrels in the hold. Hoh! we'll make land yet."
It was true. The empty hogsheads, destined for the storage of oil, had been forced up by the influx of the water to the roof of the hold, and were acting as so many buoys--the schooner could sink no lower. An hour later, the quarterdeck all awash, her bow thrown high into the air, listing horribly to starboard, the "Bertha Millner" took ground on the shore of Magdalena Bay at about the turn of the tide.
Moran swung herself over the side, hip deep in the water, and, wading ashore with a line, made fast to the huge skull of a whale half buried in the sand at that point.
Wilbur followed. The schooner had grounded upon the southern horn of the bay and lay easily on a spit of sand. They could not examine the nature of the leak until low water the next morning.
"Well, here we are," said Moran, her thumbs in her belt. "What next? We may be here for two days, we may be here for two years. It all depends upon how bad a hole she has. Have we 'put in for repairs,' or have we been cast away? Can't tell till to-morrow morning. Meanwhile, I'm hungry."
Half of the stores of the schooner were water-soaked, but upon examination Wilbur found that enough remained intact to put them beyond all fear for the present.
"There's plenty of water up the creek," he said, "and we can snare all the quail we want; and then there's the fish and abalone. Even if the stores were gone we could make out very well."
The schooner's cabin was full of water and Wilbur's hammock was gone, so the pair decided to camp on shore. In that torrid weather to sleep in the open air was a luxury.
In great good spirits the two sat down to their first meal on land. Moran cooked a supper that, barring the absence of coffee, was delicious. The whiskey was had from aboard, and they pledged each other, standing up, in something over two stiff fingers.
"Moran," said Wilbur, "you ought to have been born a man."
"At all events, mate," she said--"at all events, I'm not a girl."
"No!" exclaimed Wilbur, as he filled his pipe. "No, you're just Moran, Moran of the 'Lady Letty.'"
"And I'll stay that, too," she said decisively.
Never had an evening been more beautiful in Wilbur's eyes. There was not a breath of air. The stillness was so profound that the faint murmur of the blood behind the ear-drums became an oppression. The ocean tiptoed toward the land with tiny rustling steps. The west was one gigantic stained window, the ocean floor a solid shimmer of opalescence. Behind them, sullen purples marked the horizon, hooded with mountain crests, and after a long while the moon shrugged a gleaming shoulder into view.
Wilbur, dressed in Chinese jeans and blouse, with Chinese wicker sandals on his bare feet, sat with his back against the whale's skull, smoking quietly. For a long time there was no conversation; then at last:
"No," said Moran in a low voice. "This is the life I'm made for. In six years I've not spent three consecutive weeks on land. Now that Eilert" (she always spoke of her father by his first name), "now that Eilert is dead, I've not a tie, not a relative, not even a friend, and I don't wish it."
"But the loneliness of the life, the solitude," said Wilbur, "that's what I don't understand. Did it ever occur to you that the best happiness is the happiness that one shares?"
Moran clasped a knee in both hands and looked out to sea. She never wore a hat, and the red light of the afterglow was turning her rye-hued hair to saffron.
"Hoh!" she exclaimed, her heavy voice pitched even lower than usual. "Who could understand or share any of my pleasures, or be happy when I'm happy? And, besides, I'm happiest when I'm alone--I don't want any one."
"But," hesitated Wilbur, "one is not always alone. After all, you're a girl, and men, sailormen especially, are beasts when it's a question of a woman--an unprotected woman."
"I'm stronger than most men," said Moran simply. "If you, for instance, had been like some men, I should have fought you. It wouldn't have been the first time," she added, smoothing one huge braid between her palms.
Wilbur looked at her with intent curiosity--noted again, as if for the first time, the rough, blue overalls thrust into the shoes; the coarse flannel shirt open at the throat; the belt with its sheath-knife; her arms big and white and tattooed in sailor fashion; her thick, muscular neck; her red face, with its pale blue eyes and almost massive jaw; and her hair, her heavy, yellow, fragrant hair, that lay over her shoulder and breast, coiling and looping in her lap.
"No," he said, with a long breath, "I don't make it out. I knew you were out of my experience, but I begin to think now that you are out of even my imagination. You are right, you should keep to yourself. You should be alone--your mate isn't made yet. You are splendid just as you are," while under his breath he added, his teeth clinching, "and God! but I love you."
It was growing late, the stars were all out, the moon riding high. Moran yawned:
"Mate, I think I'll turn in. We'll have to be at that schooner early in the morning, and I make no doubt she'll give us plenty to do." Wilbur hesitated to reply, waiting to take his cue from what next she should say. "It's hot enough to sleep where we are," she added, "without going aboard the 'Bertha,' though we might have a couple of blankets off to lie on. This sand's as hard as a plank."
Without answering, Wilbur showed her a couple of blanket-rolls he had brought off while he was unloading part of the stores that afternoon. They took one apiece and spread them on the sand by the bleached whale's skull. Moran pulled off her boots and stretched herself upon her blanket with absolute unconcern, her hands clasped under her head. Wilbur rolled up his coat for a pillow and settled himself for the night with an assumed self- possession. There was a long silence. Moran yawned again.
"I pulled the heel off my boot this morning," she said lazily, "and I've been limping all day."
"I noticed it," answered Wilbur. "Kitchell had a new pair aboard somewhere, if they're not spoiled by the water now."
"Yes?" she said indifferently; "we'll look them up in the morning."
Again there was silence.
"I wonder," she began again, staring up into the dark, "if Charlie took that frying-pan off with him when he went?"
"I don't know. He probably did."
"It was the only thing we had to cook abalones in. Make me think to look into the galley to-morrow....This ground's as hard as nails, for all your blankets....Well, good-night, mate; I'm going to sleep."
Three hours later Wilbur, who had not closed his eyes, sat up and looked at Moran, sleeping quietly, her head in a pale glory of hair; looked at her, and then around him at the silent, deserted land.
"I don't know," he said to himself. "Am I a right-minded man and a thoroughbred, or a mush-head, or merely a prudent, sensible sort of chap that values his skin and bones? I'd be glad to put a name to myself." Then, more earnestly he added: "Do I love her too much, or not enough, or love her the wrong way, or how?" He leaned toward her, so close that he could catch the savor of her breath and the smell of her neck, warm with sleep. The sleeve of the coarse blue shirt was drawn up, and it seemed to him as if her bare arm, flung out at full length, had some sweet aroma of its own. Wilbur drew softly back.
"No," he said to himself decisively; "no, I guess I am a thoroughbred after all." It was only then that he went to sleep.
When he awoke the sea was pink with the sunrise, and one of the bay heads was all distorted and stratified by a mirage. It was hot already. Moran was sitting a few paces from him, braiding her hair.
"Hello, Moran!" he said, rousing up; "how long have you been up?"
"Since before sunrise," she said; "I've had a bath in the cove where the creek runs down. I saw a jack-rabbit."
"Seen anything of Charlie and the others?"
"They've camped on the other side of the bay. But look yonder," she added.
The junk had come in overnight, and was about a mile and a half from shore.
"The deuce!" exclaimed Wilbur. "What are they after?"
"Fresh water, I guess," said Moran, knotting the end of a braid. "We'd better have breakfast in a hurry, and turn to on the 'Bertha.' The tide is going out fast."
While they breakfasted they kept an eye on the schooner, watching her sides and flanks as the water fell slowly away.
"Don't see anything very bad yet," said Wilbur.
"It's somewhere in her stern," remarked Moran.
In an hour's time the "Bertha Millner" was high and dry, and they could examine her at their leisure. It was Moran who found the leak.
"Pshaw!" she exclaimed, with a half-laugh, "we can stick that up in half an hour."
A single plank had started away from the stern-post; that was all. Otherwise the schooner was as sound as the day she left San Francisco. Moran and Wilbur had the damage repaired by noon, nailing the plank into its place and caulking the seams with lamp- wick. Nor could their most careful search discover any further injury.
"We're ready to go," said Moran, "so soon as she'll float. We can dig away around the bows here, make fast a line to that rock out yonder, and warp her off at next high tide. Hello! who's this?"
It was Charlie. While the two had been at work, he had come around the shore unobserved, and now stood at some little distance, smiling at them calmly.
"Well, what do you want?" cried Moran angrily. "If you had your rights, my friend, you'd be keelhauled."
"I tink um velly hot day."
"You didn't come here to say that. What do you want?"
"I come hab talkee-talk."
"We don't want to have any talkee-talk with such vermin as you. Get out!"
Charlie sat down on the beach and wiped his forehead.
"I come buy one-piecee bacon. China boy no hab got."
"We aren't selling bacon to deserters," cried Moran; "and I'll tell you this, you filthy little monkey: Mr. Wilbur and I are going home--back to 'Frisco--this afternoon; and we're going to leave you and the rest of your vipers to rot on this beach, or to be murdered by beach-combers," and she pointed out toward the junk. Charlie did not even follow the direction of her gesture, and from this very indifference Wilbur guessed that it was precisely because of the beach-combers that the Machiavellian Chinaman had wished to treat with his old officers.
"No hab got bacon?" he queried, lifting his eyebrows in surprise.
"Plenty; but not for you."
Charlie took a buckskin bag from his blouse and counted out a handful of silver and gold.
"I buy um nisi two-piecee tobacco."
"Look here," said Wilbur deliberately; "don't you try to flim-flam us, Charlie. We know you too well. You don't want bacon and you don't want tobacco."
"China boy heap plenty much sick. Two boy velly sick. I tink um die pretty soon to-molla. You catch um slop-chest; you gib me five, seven liver pill. Sabe?"
"I'll tell you what you want," cried Moran, aiming a forefinger at him, pistol fashion; "you've got a blue funk because those Kai- gingh beach-combers have come into the bay, and you're more frightened of them than you are of the schooner; and now you want us to take you home."
"A thousand dollars."
Wilbur looked at her in surprise. He had expected a refusal.
"You no hab got liver pill?" inquired Charlie blandly.
Moran turned her back on him. She and Wilbur conferred in a low voice.
"We'd better take them back, if we decently can," said Moran. "The schooner is known, of course, in 'Frisco. She went out with Kitchell and a crew of coolies, and she comes back with you and I aboard, and if we tell the truth about it, it will sound like a lie, and we'll have no end of trouble. Then again, can just you and I work the 'Bertha' into port? In these kind of airs it's plain work, but suppose we have dirty weather? I'm not so sure."
"I gib you ten dollah fo' ten liver pill," said Charlie.
"Will you give us a thousand dollars to set you down in San Francisco?"
Charlie rose. "I go back. I tell um China boy what you say 'bout liver pill. Bime-by I come back."
"That means he'll take our offer back to his friends," said Wilbur, in a low voice. "You best hurry chop-chop," he called after Charlie; "we go home pretty soon!"
"He knows very well we can't get away before high tide to-morrow," said Moran. "He'll take his time."
Later on in the afternoon Moran and Wilbur saw a small boat put off from the junk and make a landing by the creek. The beach- combers were taking on water. The boat made three trips before evening, but the beach-combers made no show of molesting the undefended schooner, or in any way interfering with Charlie's camp on the other side of the bay.
"No!" exclaimed Moran between her teeth, as she and Wilbur were cooking supper; "no, they don't need to; they've got about a hundred and fifty thousand dollars of loot on board--our loot, too! Good God! it goes against the grain!"
The moon rose considerably earlier that night, and by twelve o'clock the bay was flooded with its electrical whiteness. Wilbur and Moran could plainly make out the junk tied up to the kelp off- shore. But toward one o'clock Wilbur was awakened by Moran shaking his arm.
"There's something wrong out there," she whispered; "something wrong with the junk. Hear 'em squealing? Look! look! look!" she cried of a sudden; "it's their turn now!"
Wilbur could see the crank junk, with its staring red eyes, high stern and prow, as distinctly as though at noonday. As he watched, it seemed as if a great wave caught her suddenly underfoot. She heaved up bodily out of the water, dropped again with a splash, rose again, and again fell back into her own ripples, that, widening from her sides, broke crisply on the sand at Wilbur's feet.
Then the commotion ceased abruptly. The bay was quiet again. An hour passed, then two. The moon began to set. Moran and Wilbur, wearied of watching, had turned in again, when they were startled to wakefulness by the creak of oarlocks and the sound of a boat grounding in the sand.
The coolies--the deserters from the "Bertha Millner"--were there. Charlie came forward.
"Ge' lup! Ge' lup!" he said. "Junk all smash! Kai-gingh come ashore. I tink him want catch um schooner."