Ocean Echoes - The Fates Grind The Captain
( Originally Published 1922 )
THE wind was light until we got down to where the river grew wider. There the breeze and current favored us. The Captain refused to let me steer, thinking that I knew very little about that kind of sailorizing; and I, seeing that the jug of brandy was beside him on the platform, knew that it was I who had reason to be alarmed, with the whole day before us, and him drinking from nine o'clock in the morning.
So the whole day passed, silently, with him ever standing at the wheel wavering about the jug that went to his lips so often; with me some-times pleading with his unresponsiveness, some-times standing alone cursing the kind of man he was, and biting back the fears that came crowding to my mind. But his power to steer seemed independent of his condition, which amazed me.
Since then I have lived to -see many men like that surely a token of immortality.
At about eleven o'clock that night the breeze was strong, and as we rounded the curve in the river where the wind changed the booms flew over on the other tack with a lightning bang, I would shout to him to cluck his head, which he did automatically. If the main boom should catch him well I should hate to think ! What would become of the schooner, and how should I explain?
"All right, young fellow," he would stutter, as he dodged a boom. "I'm a'ri' fashtes' trip ever made. So-o-ome fash' schooner !"
Then he'd take another drink, and the schooner would lie over till the baled hay on the lee side would drag in the water.
I went down into the cabin to make coffee. I thought it might neutralize the brandy, and sober him up a bit. Before I even had the fire going in the stove I heard the booms swing over, and a deep thud in the cockpit. My heart almost stopped beating. I felt as if I were paralyzed.
There was no doubt in my mind as to what had happened. I knew that everything was waiting for me there above : the schooner, in danger of being beached, the Captain at least badly hurt. There was no fear now, and I jumped to the deck like a man with years of wisdom behind him. I was in possession of faculties that I knew I had never had before. That is a feeling that only comes once, and it never forsakes one in emergency after that.
I ran to where I thought the Captain lay. He was there, with blood oozing from his ears and nose, stricken down at last by the mighty swing of the main boom. The boom was whistling through the rigging. The schooner wasn't away from the river bank two hundred feet.
Jumping for the wheel platform and climbing it, I clutched the wheel, putting it hard down and bringing the schooner up into the wind, heading upstream. Then, by dropping the peak of the mainsail and hauling the jib well to windward, I put her out of sailing commission. She would drift with the current down the middle of the river without danger to herself. Then I ran aft again to the Captain.
When I had carried him down into the cabin, I could see by the light of the candle that he was still breathing. How badly he was hurt I could not see. He could not answer when I asked.
Gently I lifted him into the bunk, and in straightening out his legs I discovered that the left one was broken below the knee. His face was covered with blood, and there was a deep scalp wound at the back of his head. His eyes were partly open, the pupils turned upwards, and the lips a pale blue.
I made him as comfortable as I knew how, bandaged his head, and washed the blood away. It seemed that if he died I should be held to blame. I knew nothing of his affairs, nor even who it was who owned the schooner. What if she should be wrecked? The Captain, the vessel, and the river were all strangers to me, and I was alone with these lifeless forces.
The flapping of the main peak stirred me to action. I jumped to the deck and surveyed the vessel and the night. I could barely trace the outline of the river banks, but beyond them I knew lay uninhabited tule lands. If there was a doctor this side of San Francisco I did not know it, nor at the moment did I seem to know much of anything at all, since my initiative of a few minutes ago had now given place to a mind as variable as the weather-vane upon my father's barn. I actually took the time to wish that I were at home and asleep in the Irish linen sheets, to awake in the morning to find this only a dream.
The wind now increased and drops of rain fell. The fresh-water waves lapped in uncanny sound along the sides of the schooner, so differently from the wash of the great salt ocean. I turned and ran back to the cabin, to the semblance of, human companionship.
This time the Captain showed signs of con sciousness. His eyes were wide open, and he groaned as if in great pain. He might live, I thought, and a new hope sprang up within me. I would try to sail the schooner to 'Frisco Bay. It was a daring thing to do, but.
I poured some of the muddy river water into the Captain's mouth. It gurgled down his throat, and noised as though it rippled over a shallow fall.
"How are you now, sir?"
He looked up at me, and said in a sort of a strangling whisper :
"Look out for the schooner, don't bother about me"
"Shall I take her in?"
He didn't answer, and his head waved to and fro. The candle in the bottle candlestick had burned low, the dripping wax had formed a tape-like ribbon down the side of the bottle. I blew the light out and jumped to the deck, set the main peak, ran forward and slacked over the main jib, and back again to the wheel, when she filled away and gathered speed. I put her about, and pointed her down the river.
The wind was strong now, but it favored me, and we were off, with God for a pilot, and in me the instinct of a sailor.
It seemed ages till daylight. We had no time, and the old nickel-plated watch was in the Captain's pocket. I wondered if he were dead, but could not leave the wheel to find out. Gusts of wind came at times so powerful that it was with difficulty that I kept the schooner from turning over. When this happened I had to luff so close to the river bank that there was danger of running into it.
In the loneliness and darkness I began to pray, and I prayed that night as I have never prayed before nor since. I knew my prayers then, prayers that my mother had taught me, and which to this day I have never forgotten. I can't say that I use them much of late years, but I would if occasion demanded it. A courage and confidence seems to come to me from prayer which is not to be produced by all the will power in the world.
Wet from the rain and shivering with cold I stood at the wheel and watched the antics of the wind and the schooner, until, with the first faint streaks of dawn, I saw outlined against a hazy hill the outline of San Quentin State Prison. I knew it from the Captain's having pointed it out to me on our way up the river.
It was a beacon of hope to me. Across the bay ten or twelve miles lay Mission Flats. There was plenty of sea-room now. I was tempted to let go the wheel and take a look at the Captain, but feared that if I should find him dead I should be too much alarmed to continue on the schooner. Nor could I help him much if he were alive, so I concluded to make the best time I could to port.
About ten o'clock that Monday morning I lowered the sails and dropped anchor at Mission Flats, and hesitatingly entered the cabin, fearing the worst. But there was yet some life in him. He was breathing hard, with a hollow, rattling sound in his throat.
I left him, and pulled ashore in the little boat that had been towing astern all night. At the Dane's saloon in Berry Street, which occurred to me as the nearest place to go for help, I found Kitty behind the bar. I told her what had happened, and that I wanted someone who could help me get the Captain to the hospital at once. She put her hands on her fat hips, and looking out of the window said reflectively: "Shure an' I knew that something would happen to poor auld Captain Glass."
Then she spun into action. "Hans, you durty loafer, come here," she cried. "There's work for you to do."
Her husband appeared as if by magic. A short thickset man he was, coatless, and wearing green silk elastic bands with pink bows around his sleeves. He called an ambulance and a policeman, and I rowed him and the doctor to the schooner, where we found the Captain still alive.
We moved him to the boat, but he died before we had reached the wharf. Who knows but that he too, had only clung to life while his responsibility lasted? One cannot say so with fullest confidence, however, for surely he did not have the finest idea of duty as far as the jackass brandy was concerned.
The jug, by the way, I took ashore with me, and fortunately too, as I had much to explain to the police; so for the first time the jug proved to be my friend.
The agent for the schooner, to whose office I presently found my way, listened to my story without emotion or comment. When I had finished he merely nodded, and said, quite casually :
"Well, do you think you can run her?"
"Yes, sir," and my voice broke with eagerness. "I think I can."
"All right then, unload the hay up the bay" (I forget the name of the place he told me). "And from there go up to Porta Costa and get a load of salt."
That was the last of Captain Glass. Unwept and unsung, he passed as many a worthier man has done, and his little bronze baton went with him into the humble grave, whose whereabouts I do not even know.
I felt proud of my new position. This was sure and good money, upwards of four hundred dollars a month; and, being not yet twenty years old, and the year one of panic and scarcity of work, I thought that it was the sea for a sailor and hogs for the landlubber.
So I went about my business, hiring a man to help me, and running the schooner without mischance for four months. Then fortune, perhaps fearing that she had spoiled me, deserted me entirely. I got malaria fever. Nothing that I could do was of any help, and with the patent medicines I bought and the whiskey and quinine, the doctor's bills I had to pay, and my despair at growing continually weaker, it began to look as if I was to leave the venture in worse condition than I was when I fought for the Captain in the saloon on Berry Street.
I left the schooner after four months, when it became apparent that I must do so to live. When I left her I had twelve hundred dollars in my pockets. After two months ashore the amount had dwindled sadly. I kept writing home -how well, and how well fixed I was, for my mother's joy at my good fortune was not to be lightly destroyed. Her letters were my only consolation in those awful weeks. Little did she know then what was to pay for being the captain of a San Francisco bay schooner !
Chills and fever usually hit me in the forenoons, and would last for about three hours on alternate days. Between times I was limp, dizzy and listless, longing to be quit of life.