The Giant Ship
( Originally Published 1917 )
SOMEWHERE in the Western Ocean in those tossing leagues of sea that lie to the eastward of the fishing grounds upon the Grand Banks of Newfoundland the stout bark Etoile de Saint Maio rolled sullenly in a dark sea and shook from her idle sails enfolding masses of fog. Her hold was full of the shining cod, her heavy trawl boats stowed and lashed for a voyage, and up and down her decks strode her aged master impatient of the walls of fog, and of the listless air that would not lift her sheets. She was an ancient little ship with the stately bow of a medieval frigate. Her long bowsprit cocked high into the air and about her quarters was the scroll work of a false gallery, as though she had once been the pet of some admiral of France. From a distance she was a fair sight for any sailor eye, but once alongside one saw that whatever noble past she may have had she was now a fisherman. Her frayed ratlines drew down cracked and withered deadeyes, and rusty stains smouldered on her greasy and battered planks. The staysail and spanker that swung listlessly with her roll were stained a dull red and the rest of her canvas was tattered and patched. An old-style anchor with wooden stock hung by ring and fluke from her rail, and its rusty chain clanked idly in her hawse. Two long days she had thus whistled for a breeze and clanged her doleful bell against the curtains of fog. Sailors in wooden shoes, stout jerseys and round watch caps smoked by the forecastle hatch and pretended to keep a lookout. It was late summer and the keen flat smell of ice was in the air. Warm weather had broken the northern ice packs and their great masses were moving ponderously southward, their mailed fists masked in the velvet gauntlet of the mist.
Amidships a fresh foretopsail lay in stiff folds upon the deck and five sailors with palmthimbles and fids laboriously overhauled its leeches. Adrien Bort, the master, kept an eye upon them and an eye aloft for the first sign of a breeze.
Seven months the little ship had been away from the walled garden of St. Maio and the sweet waters of the Rance, and Adrien was impatient of the quiet sea, impatient of the drifting hull and idle sails. Never a close navigator he was now many days from his last observation and literally "at sea" as to his position. Fifty years he had followed the sea from cabin boy to master, but to-day he longed for the shore and burned with the petulance of in-action. It was bad enough, this fishing ground of the "New-worlders" ; even when the sun shone, the ship lay hove to under try sails in bright sea, the trawl boats came merrily back with their silver treasures, and the tackles creaked to the glad chorus of the banks,
"La v'la pourtant finie,
but this helpless floating on unknown currents with an idle wheel was insufferable. His memory went back to days in the roaring wilderness of the Horn, to glorious nights under royals in the vast Pacific, to the noisy docks of Amoy and the heat-browned banks of the Hoogli, and he shivered in the stark air of the north.
Toward evening there was a change in the flat sounds about the ship. From somewhere beyond the wall a long swell rolled toward the brig and heaved itself under her
quarters. Her yards swung drunkenly as she rolled away from it, and a thousand protesting voices awoke aloft. Men scrambled on deck from the forward hatch as Adrien Bart shouted, "It is finished; behold the fair wind!" The fog seemed to harden and to roll up from its base; lanes and shadings of light appeared in it; cloud shapes evolved themselves whose crests toppled and rolled forward and in a moment the fog was flying away to leeward before a fresh breeze. The spanker sheet was eased away, yards trimmed and the topsail mastheaded to the cry of
"Ali, Alo, pour maschero.
The bitter drudgery of the north was done and St. Malo lay ahead, the fog and ice, salt burns and gurry sores were forgotten and with gear coiled away and made snug for the night, smoke pouring from the galley stack and the master himself at the wheel the watch below went back joyfully to their forecastle as night set in. Worn packs of cards were brought out, an accordion dragged out of a sea chest and the dark little room resounded to the call of happy voices. Here was Jules Bourbier, one time man-of-war's man, who knew the songs of a hundred ports. Over there with the round red cap sat Alfonse the cook who could and would improvise a bass to support any song. Anatole of Dol it was who brought forth the accordion and no one had a better memory than he for the endless songs of the sailor saints of Brittany. No man of the throngs that journeyed to the Foire es Marins at Vieux Bourg, was better known. Jules urged him to sing the rowing song of St. Malo, another called for the beautiful "Er re goli," the Breton litany, but Anatole waved them aside and in a high voice sang
"We were three sailors of Groix
All hands nodded their delight and joined loudly in the chorus:
"Embarqués sur le Saint François
In the after-cabin a sturdy lad of fifteen lit a swinging lamp and set out upon a small table a decanter of wine and some biscuit. The light showed a cozy cabin, a bunk neatly made up, a case of charts, three pictures of the saints. The boy set a plate-fiddle upon the table and made it fast and then went up the companionway to the deck. The wind had freshened, and the ship, rather deeply laden, tore heavily and noisily through the seas, shouldering the water from her lee bow and bobbing her head into the seas to her very eyes. The boy hurried aft to the wheel where the captain still stood, "Very well, grandfather, she hurries right back to St. Malo. I think we shall be out of the ice very soon." The old man shook his head. "We run too fast in the dark, little son. I am a happy man when I hand you back safely to your mother on the quai of St. Malo. The old ship makes too many groans to-night, and I feel the ice somewhere near." He threw his wheel up three spokes as a curling hurrying sea grasped at the weather rail, and steadied himself as the vessel heeled slowly before it. A snatch of song from the forecastle crept faintly aft as the ship's bow rose to the sea but was immediately lost in the clamor of her scuppers.
The captain swung his wheel down again and sent the lad forward to see if the lookout was at his post. Groping his way along the weather rail, past the dark bulks of the trawl boats, the lad found the lookout and was about to return when he heard the loud chorus from the forecastle, "Mon traderi, tra la la la." Quietly he slipped down through the hatch into the circle of sailors below. The song was ended and he joined in the applause for Anatole's singing.
"Sit down, little man," they cried. "Here's plenty of room. All the villagers will be here presently, and we shall dance and maybe have a play. There are no better times to be had on La Grande Chasse Foudre herself."
"What ship is that?" asked the boy. "Is she a new-worlder ?"
"Ha, listen to the boy, the poor little farmer boy ! You'll hear of that grand ship soon enough, but if you steal any more cakes from the cook you'll never get aboard her." A shout greeted the sally, and the lad covered with confusion edged away and ran up the ladder into the darkness of the forward deck. His eyes were blinded for the moment by the smoke and light of the forecastle and he felt his way carefully aft, groping along the rail.
He had taken but a step when a wild cry suddenly rent the air, "Bear away, bear away !" It was a cry of agony and fear from the lookout, and almost at the same moment and before the words had died away the rushing hull struck with shattering impact a great mass of submerged ice. The straining masts snapped short off and fell with a mighty roar upon the decks ; planks ground and splintered, and the blasted hull groaning in dissolution slipped from the edge of its destroyer, and slowly and sullenly subsided into the icy waters. With the first shock the aged master and the boy were thrown against the lee rail stunned and bleeding. In a moment they scrambled to their feet and grasping each other in the darkness they jumped into a trawl boat and with their sharp knives cut away the lashings that held it to its chocks upon the deck. They threw themselves into the bottom of the boat and as the ship slipped softly down into the deep they were lifted clear of the deck and tossed and whirled about in the eddies above her grave. Numbed by the cold and shocked by the suddenness of their disaster they lay quietly in the trawl boat.
Morning came slowly to the cold northern sea. A faint light crept into the sky and gradually illuminated the heavy walls of mist that hung about the boat. All night the old man and the boy had lain under the thin protection of a torn boat cover which had barely served to keep the spray and dripping fog from their aching bodies. With the first light the boy dragged himself painfully onto the thwart and looked about him eagerly for some promise of rescue. A small amount of water ran under the boat floor and this he carefully bailed out. For a long time he sat huddled in the stern waiting for the dawn that should enable him to see beyond the encircling curtains of morning mist. There were oars in the boat but no sail, and without pro-visions or fresh water he realized that the only hope to which he and the old man could look was that another ship might see them during the coming day. He was reluctant to disturb his grandfather and left him in his stupor of shock and cold until with the advancing morning the sheer loneliness and hopelessness of his position got the better of him and he shook the old man and aroused him from his sleep.
"Grandfather, what shall we do? I cannot see any of the others; we have no water ; we have nothing to eat."
The old man opened his eyes heavily and stared at the boy without comprehension for a time, until all of the events of their terrible last moment aboard the brig re-shaped themselves in his mind.
"Alas," he said at last, "she is gone—my good ship, and all my brave boys, and all my fine cod, and Saint Anne D'Ouray has forgotten me."
"Yes, grandfather, but some one will see us and we shall get back to St. Malo, but I wish we had something to eat."
The old man, with the help of the boy, tried to rise, but he fell back weakly and gasped out that his ribs were broken, and so he lay there staring into the misty sky—this old sailor, who, for half a century had laughed at the menace of these cold, gray seas.
The boat tossed sullenly within her dull circle of sea, and the boy, cold, hungry and dispirited, sat by the side of the old man, and thought over the short years of his life. He recalled the little town of Miquelon where he was born, and the broad fields that now spread their golden stubble in the late summer sun. He saw again St. Malo with her ancient causeway and encompassing walls, and the bright roadstead where he had first seen the brig Etoile lying proudly at anchor. He lived over again the day with the village boys when they had stolen oranges from the open market, and the proud morning when he had first donned sailor's cap and blouse and gone with his grandfather as part of the crew of the lost brig.
Small fry of the sea flashed out of the water alongside and dashed away before an unseen pursuer. Bright sea cucumbers, the "punkins" of the Banks, floated idly by, and the day wore on, bringing nearer another night of cold, hunger and thirst with its possibilities even of rain or wind.
The old man's face was sunken and purple, and the youth found it more and more difficult to arouse him or hold his attention. The loneliness of his position and the thought that if the old man again fell into a deep sleep he might never awake, filled the boy with terror, and he strove by every means to keep him awake and to have the comfort of his voice.
"Last night," said the boy, "I was in the fo'castle and the lads were singing, and they said how happy it was and they said it was like La Grande Chasse Foudre. What ship is that, grandfather? Did she come from St. Malo?"
Day was fast going, and the chill of night creeping in from measureless ice-packs of the north fastened upon the sluggish frame of the old sailor with a grip of steel, as he lay upon the tossing floor, with his sea dimmed eyes staring up into the unfriendly sky of the north. He laid a massive hand upon the boy's knee.
"Fifty years, little son, I have followed the sea, from Labrador to the Horn, and from Sydney to Amoy. In the little church at St. Maio hang many of my gifts, and I have never forgotten my duty to the church and to the saints. Now I am old and at last I am through with night watches and salt meat, with gurry-sores and chilblains. To-morrow the fog will clear, we'll have a brave breeze, and then you shall see La Grande Chasse Foudre, and her captain will send a boat and I will go aboard her.
"Aye, that's a fine ship, and I shall have all my good boys with me again, and meat every meal—the fine fat mutton that they keep on board, and never any beans any more, and Burgundy for breakfast, for dinner Madeira, and a glass or so of rum at night. She is a famous ship, lad, a big ship and plenty of room for a man to swing his hammock, for, of course, I shall be a sailor aboard, probably a maintop-man."
"Well, tell me, grandfather, how large is this ship and how fast can she sail?"
"Yes, you may well ask how large she is, but I cannot tell you, for no one knows how many thousand leagues long she is and everything about her is in the same proportion. Why, I have heard it said that her masts are so tall that if you, a mere boy, should start to her maintop to carry soup to the topman you would be a gray old man like me before you reached her futtock-shrouds.
"I don't say though that she is a fast sailor. You don't have to run to her head-sheets when she goes about. She sails no faster than a buoy, but then she doesn't go about very often, and when she does it takes her a hundred years to go from full to full. The men take plenty of time for everything and indeed, my boy, it takes plenty of time. They say it takes two hundred years to raise her anchor."
Thus the old sailor, rising above the terror of the moment, beat down his fears with the vision of faith, and the lad, great-eyed and eager, caught from the words of this ancient oracle of the sea a vision of hope and salvation which stilled the pains of hunger and thirst, and shut out the spectre of the cold and menacing sea. In a corner of the boat-cover myriad beads of moisture had merged into a tiny pool and this the boy deftly emptied into his hand and poured it between the old sailor's lips. After a moment he went on :
"There is plenty of room for every one, lad, and she is a brave ship with plenty of arms aboard. There is space for an army to exercise with guns upon her main truck. Her mizzen royal is a nice little sail for a man to handle. It is larger than all Europe.
"I believe I shall know the captain when we see him. He is a great, large, fine man, and he is very old, so old that no one knows any one older, and, of course, he is a big man to hold that berth. He has a long white moustache, thick enough to make a cable for an eighty-gun ship, but that would not make the signal halliard for the Chasse Foudre, her signal halliards are as large as the great tower of Toulon, so you can well imagine the size of her cable. Perhaps you would like to be the boy aboard and have a silver pipe? Well, I can tell you, the pipes of her boys are as great as frigates!
"Plenty of good times aboard ! Why, there is an inn in every block and plenty of country to hunt and fish and ride about in her tops, and you don't have to do any rigging for her. She was built by one man at the commencement of the world, and it took twenty-five years to build her and quite as long to rig her."
It was late afternoon by this time, and far off on the horizon to the westward the boy's eyes caught a gathering of dark clouds brooding over a squall of rain.
"There's a rainbow, grandfather, isn't it a good sign?"
The old man seemed lost in his own thoughts. His eyes were shining and seemed to look through the sky into which he peered and to see there some vision of ineffable happiness. The plucky lad knelt down at his side and slowly raised the master so that his eyes looked out over the edge of the gunwale toward the western sky.
"See there," cried the boy, "there is my rainbow." The light brightened again in the old sailor's eyes.
"That's no rainbow, lad; that must be the pennant of La Grande Chasse Foudre. All those colors that you see are the emblems of all the nations for she is the ship of every country. She comes slowly, boy, but she will be here in the morning.
"When the master sees us he will blow his whistle and call away a boat. That is the sound you hear in the blocks when the wind blows like the devil. Then you will hear the officer of the watch call for the boat's crew with his trumpet and that is what you country boys call the thunder ; and the tides, you think the moon attracts them, but that is only the captain entering the quarter-galleries, and the ebb, bien ! that is the men pumping water to wash the decks in the morning."
The old man sank back and closed his eyes, with the smile of assured peace.
"I shall see there again all of my good and brave boys and we shall sail forever, for there is no dying aboard the Chasse Foudre."
The boy, straining his eyes to windward, saw a faint blackness on the horizon, which, as he watched, grew to a smudge of smoke. Struggling to his feet he stood shading his eyes in the fading light, seeing the faint blur lengthen and darken until it was unmistakably the breath of some high-powered ship. In a frenzy of glad excitement he strove in vain to arouse the old sailor, who had sunk again into a deep sleep. Hurriedly he tore the back from his blouse and lashed it to the blade of a long oar which he held aloft in the light breeze.
Slowly but surely a dark line appeared below the streamer of smoke and his heart raced with the hope that the approaching vessel would see his ragged signal before night set in. Like some pasteboard ship upon a painted drop she moved nearer and nearer until presently, in the dim light of the evening, she seemed gradually to expand. Brass rails and white cabin walls suddenly appeared and as the boy waved his tattered pennant to and fro he saw the long ship's side gradually swing away and the great bow, crowned with its lines of stacks, stood toward him.
He shouted wildly, "Grandfather, grandfather, she sees us! She is coming !"
But the old man gave him no sign. He dropped his oar as the great ship slowly approached him to wind-ward and a boat dropped noisily into the water. The tense hours of fasting and of fear were over, and the exhausted youth dropped his head upon the gunwale of the boat and sobbed in thankfulness and exhaustion. Strong arms lifted him up and gave him water and brandy, and he looked once more into the face of the living.
He turned to the old man, still lying upon the boat cover on the floor, and saw him there in the arms of a young ship's surgeon, in whose face he read the message that the old sailor had at last heard the call of the master of La Grande Chasse Foudre, and had gone to take his place with all those good and happy sailor mates of his past in the crew of the great ship which would sail forever more.