Ocean Echoes - The Last Chapter
( Originally Published 1922 )
WE had come into the war now, and as anxious as I was to do something to help, I found little encouragement in the West. Wherever I made application, the response was : "Wait, wait, don't be in a hurry." The same thing had happened to me in 1898. I left a ship then and trained for our war with Spain three months at my own expense, only to e told that Uncle Sam had more volunteers than he could use.
This time the excitement grew upon me so strongly that I decided I would get at least three thousand miles nearer; and in May, 1918, we left a little place we had rented, and my wife started for New York. There I joined her a month later, and went right to work' as Superintendent of Deck Rigging in the Port Newark Shipyard, while she worked in an ammunition plant.
It seemed that Old Ocean was once more taking care of me. I was at home with masts and booms, anchors and cables, life-boats, steering gear and compasses. I worked there until the next summer.
Then came a period of idleness, waiting for another position, and I did a good deal of reading. Stories of the sea, some were. I criticized them to myself. Those writers who really knew the sea seemed to be self-conscious, sometimes; to think that they must use the ocean as scenery to decorate their plot. Those who did not know the sea, seemed to want to take awful chances with the truth. Then I got hold of the "Trawler," and it got hold of me. Why shouldn't I try to write? I thought. I had things to say and no one would sneer at the simplicity of an old sailor.
I wrote my first book; and the critics received "The Flying Bo'sun" kindly. They said the most heartening thing that it rang true. We can't all visualize the colors on the horizon, and some of the things that have happened to me may seem impossible to a reader. But when we fall a-yarning it is hard to stop, and we like our listeners to be awake and calling "Bravo" at the end.
So this tale is drawing to its close, and I must not drift, but drop my anchor where the holding ground is good, and enter my ship in her port of discharge.
In the summer of 1921 I went to sea again, not as a sailor before the mast this time, nor as a mate, nor a master, but as a passenger bound for South America. When the Ambrose Channel was cleared, and the old Scotland Lightship bore away on the starboard beam I felt the motion of the Sea of my youth. As the land faded away, and the sky and sea closed in around me, a sadness came over me. Something was wrong, something different from other times.
It wasn't like being at sea at all. There wasn't a roll out of the ship, the black smoke that belched out of the smoke-stacks seemed unreal, the bulwarks were far away above the floating water. There were no clanks from blocks nor flop of sails, no running to and fro of naked feet. All that reminded me of the old days were the ship's bells. Their tone was the same, and faithfully to their age long responsibility, they chimed the pure Time of the Sun.
As we wore away south, familiar things showed up again. The blackfin shark still prowled across the ocean's surface, there was the dolphin and the flying-fish, the whale and his enemy the thrasher. Porpoises still played around the bows.
The clouds still had their old-time glow, the sunsets fired the skies as in other days. The night skies, it seemed to me, were more beautiful. Old, familiar friends I could see up there, almost always clear of clouds, the Southern Cross, with its two pilot stars pointing to it sparkling with beauty brighter than all the rest of that starry field.
One night when the noisy passengers had gone to their bunks to sleep, I went forward to the forecastle head, up to the eyes of her, where I could see out upon the ocean unobstructed. I was alone there, everything mortal was behind me. A gentle breeze blew across the bows. So cool and soothing it felt ! I was not conscious of the steamer I was on. I felt the influence of the years that were back of me.
As I stood there holding the jack-pole, gazing out into the bright night, ships, misty yet not dim, sailing-ships of every sort, with every sort of canvas, sailed up from the lee. They had memories' sails bellied out to the wind. I-knew them all, one after the other, their hulls, black or white, their rigs, their painted ports. Of course I knew them, and their scars and the queer things about them, and called them each by name.
How fiery the water looked as it dashed over their bows, how gracefully they rode with the lee rail low ! Ships, real ships, the ships of other years!
I was startled by a voice beside me :
"So you are up here, are you?"
"Yes, Captain," I replied absently, for I knew I had to let them go.
"You are not the only one," he said; "there are night s that I, too, come up here to watch the old ships go sailing by. The lookout in the crow's-nest up there never reports them. He doesn't see them. He is a modern sailor and has only eyes for smoke."