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Wagner - The Blood Red Sail

( Originally Published 1894 )



THE fire had been out for weeks. Somebody who came from the country had almost filled the fireplace with a huge bouquet of wild roses. They made it look very pretty for a few days, but now the roses had all faded and fallen to pieces too, and nobody cared enough even to sweep up the dry, dead leaves and throw them out. It all looked forsaken and desolate enough. But it was no more desolate than I. We were lonely and unhappy for the same reason, the poor fireplace and I, because the little girl had gone away with her mother down to the sea and would not be back for more weeks and weeks yet. The city was so hot and dull and stupid ! It made me feel dull and stupid to stay in it, except when it made me angry. Yet perhaps the fireplace was even a little worse off than I, though it was not more forsaken and alone, for it had no work to do, while I had plenty. Then again the fireplace, in spite of all the wonderful and beautiful things we had seen in it sometimes, had never been anywhere except just where it was now, and it knew nothing about the sea.

But I had been in several other places ; and even in the city, with the heat pouring down from the sky and quivering up from the pavements, one can dream of " waters, winds, and rocks," and dreams are good things to have for those who can have nothing else.

And I had the dreams and something else. For the little girl and her mother had said that I might come down to the sea too, whenever I thought the city could get on without me. What surprised me was that the city got on at all, but all the time I thought more and more that I was of no use to it, and it was of no use to me, and finally I left all my work in it to take care of itself and fled away to the sea. Oh, how lovely it was! That first long unbroken sight of the line where the sky and the water met made me feel, as I always feel at such times, that it was worth half the year's worry and care just to see this ocean and this heaven, to breathe this free, salt air, to smell the flowers by the road-side, and to gaze and gaze again at the two great tracts of peaceful blue. How wonderful is this calm rest of a thing that can rage and destroy when it will ! The peace of a field of daisies is pretty and sweet ; the peace of the ocean is like that of God.

The little girl and I had a long walk along the beaches, over the rocks, and through the tall, salt grass. We hunted among the smooth, round pebbles for the smoothest and the roundest; we studied the jelly-fish that was borne up the beach by the wave and then glided swiftly back again with it, as if it had forgotten some-thing, till one wave, higher than the others, would leave it lying on the sand at our feet, where we could study it as much as we liked ; we wondered if the jelly-fish ever did forget anything and if he had remembered it now, so that he did not want to go back any more. We caught little crabs and made them run races, laying huge wagers on our favorites ; I filled my pocket, and the little girl filled her handkerchief with the tiny, pointed shells that can be strung into such pretty necklaces. Then we found a great, bright, curly ribbon of seaweed, as wide as two hands, so long that when the little girl held it by the middle she could scarcely lift the ends off the sand, and rich and beautiful in color like dark-red tortoise-shell. The little girl looped one end of it around her head and wound the rest about her body, so that she looked a true little sea princess.

All day a fresh, cool breeze came up from the sea, so different from the air of the dreadful city. Toward evening it grew cooler yet. The wind blew more, and little shreds and patches of fog, and then larger clouds of it, hurried along over the fields. We could see them coming, away off over the water, then they reached the shore and hid the walls and the pastures, then they wrapped us up within themselves and passed us, and we saw them flying off again as if they were trying to carry a chill from the sea as far into the land as they could. And it was chilly after the sun was quite goneŚnot very cold, but just cool enough so that everybody thought it would be pleasant to have a bit of fire on the hearth. And when we thought a fire would be pleasant we always had it.

Of course down there we never think of making a fire of anything but driftwood. It makes the most wonderful, magical fire in the world. One could dream out stories for a whole evening from the wood alone. Here is a stick that must have been a part of a spar. Was it blown away from the mast in a gale ? Now hold your breath and think if some poor sailor was blown off into the waves with it. Did he catch at this very stick as he sank ? Did his wife wait and wait for him at home, till his shipmate came and told her? Here is a little piece of smooth board, with a bit of cornice fastened to the end. It must be from the wall of a cabin. Did the captain's daughter and the young mate sit under it and whisper stories to each other in the calm evenings of the voyage ? There is a piece of barrel-stave. Perhaps it once held rum for the sailors' grog; it burns as if it did. There again is a float from a fisherman's net. Was the net torn when it broke away, and did the fisherman lose some fish? And because of that did his sweetheart perhaps lose a ribbon or a trinket? Then here is a broken fragment of a lobster pot. Even this might be some loss to a poor man. And not only are all these things and a hundred times as many more to be thought of, but all this wood has been soaked in the salts of the sea, and when it burns the flames are of all sorts of strange and beautiful and ghostly colorsŚwhite and red and green and blue and yellow and violet.

Everybody feels the charm of a driftwood fire. The little girl surely could not help feeling it, and she came and sat on the stool at my feet, leaned her head against my knee, and gazed at the flames without saying a word. But I answered her thought. " Yes," I said, " we may see almost anything in that fire. Look at that strip of cocoanut husk. Does it not tell of green palm-groves and sunny skies and warm breezes? Yet as it lies there on its curved side, with the two ends lifted from the hearth, has it not the shape of a galley, like those in which the rude old pirates of the North used to sweep over the sea, bringing terror to all who came in their way ? It is all burnt and blackened, and right over it rises a tall flame of bright red. It is a black ship, with sails all of the color of blood. The strangest of ships it is, and it has the strangest of stories.

"Long, long years ago, in a fearful storm, the captain tried to sail this ship around the cape. The captain of another ship hailed him and asked him if he did not mean to find a harbor for the night. But he swore a terrible oath that he would sail around the cape in spite of Davy Jones, if it took till doomsday. At this Davy Jones was angry, and swore on his part that it should take till doomsday, that the captain should sail in the storm till then and should never get around the cape. Do you know who Davy Jones is ? He is the wicked spirit of the sea. When the winds and the waves rage and tear away the sails of the ships, or sink the ships or drive them upon the reefs, it is his work ; when it is all smooth and calm and sparkling, as we saw it today, then the good fairies of the sea are there and are making everything about it calm and happy.

" But the fairies never came near this ship. She was always driven about, and there was a storm wherever she went. Never could her captain bring her into any port and never could he round the cape. Only for years and years he sailed and sailed in the storm, and found no harbor and no rest. At first he was bold and tried to sail on and gain his port; then he was angry and raged again, and swore that he would not be beaten ; then he was in despair ; and at last he grew so weary with the storm and the sea and the clouds and again the wind and the sky and the ocean and yet the rain and the waves and the fog, that he longed only to die and to be at peace.

" But he did not die, and no one of his crew died. The sailors all grew old, and their hair and their beards were white, and they looked like ghosts, and their ship was like the ghost of a ship ; but they were not ghosts ; they were real men and they sailed in a real ship. Some-times the crews of other ships saw them. Sometimes they hailed the crews of the other ships and begged them to take letters to their friends at home. They said that their almanac had been blown away and they did not know how long they had been from home. They would lower a boat and row to the ship they had hailed, in a sea that would swamp any other boat in half a minute, and so they would bring their letters on deck. Those who knew their story refused to take the letters, and then the sailors would nail them to the mast or lay them on the deck, with a heavy weight to keep them from blowing away, and go back to their own ship. So the letters sometimes reached their homes, for it was said to bring bad luck either to take their letters willingly or to throw them away when they were left on the ship.

" But oh, what of those to whom the letters were sent? Once a captain brought a packet of them to the port from which the strange ship had sailed. Not one of those to whom they were directed could be found, and he opened some of them, hoping that the letters them-selves might tell him some way of finding the sailors' friends. One of the sailors had written to his father that after this voyage he meant to live on the land with him and never to go to sea again. When the captain took this letter to its address, he found a man of the right name, but the man said : `No, no, the letter is not for me; no son of mine is a sailor. None of our family ever went to sea except one, for there is an old story that my great-grandfather's brother once went away in a ship and that the ship was never heard of again. For years his old father used to dream about him and to declare that his ship still floated, and he died believing that his boy was yet alive. No, that is my name on the letter, but it is not for me.' One sailor had sent a bank-note to his sister, but where her house stood there was a church, and it had been there for a hundred years. Another in his let-ter sent a pressed tropical flower to his sweet-heart. It was of the color that looked pretty in her hair, but the poor fellow forgot that pressing it would spoil it for that. The captain, despairing of delivering the letters, went into the church, and there, on one of the stones of the floor, he read the sweetheart's name. It said that she was ninety years old when she died, and the words were almost worn away by the feet that had crossed them. The captain dropped the flower upon the stone, and the next morning it was swept away.

" So the sailors grew so old that it seemed they could not grow any older. Then slowly they began to know what they had always re-fused to believe, that they had been sailing for years and for hundreds of years, and that all who ever knew them and loved them had been long, long dead. Then their eyes grew more hollow, and their hair and their long beards thinner, and their faces more wrinkled and withered, and it was as if all the blood had dried out of their hearts. Perhaps it was when the blood went out of their hearts that it stained the sails that dreadful red. So much for the crew, but it was different with the captain. Davy Jones was preparing something worse yet for him, or thought he was. He was tired of seeing him simply wander hopelessly on the ocean ; he wanted to plague him more. He could do this, he thought, by giving him now and then a little hope and then shattering it and sinking it to the bottom of the sea, and dragging the man's heart to the bottom of the sea, too, with a leaden load of despair.

" The captain had never grown to look old, and now, to carry out his wicked plan, Davy Jones promised that once in every seven years he might enter a port and go on shore, and if ever he should find a good woman who would love him and give her life for him, he might rest and never sail again ; but when he failed to find such a woman he must go on board his ship again and sail through the storm and the wind and the waves for seven years more. Now, Davy Jones would never have promised this if he had thought that there could be such a good and loving woman, but being only a wicked spirit of the sea he did not know much about good women.

" And for a long time his plan did succeed and the poor captain was more wretched than ever. Once in seven years he would go on shore to seek that true woman, and as often he would re-turn to his ship and sail away. Good women he found many, but none of them would love him. Then his heart would fill with bitterness, for he saw them loving and giving their lives to men who, he could not but know, were less brave and patient and worthy of them than he ; faith-less men who forgot them, cruel men who misused them, dull men who knew not their own blessings. Why should they love such men as these and never him ? Now, you and I, who are so wise, know, of course, that such thoughts were selfish and wicked. For what was he to any woman that she should give her life, or even an hour of it, for him? Was his life or his peace better than another's, that another's should be given for his? Why should any woman love him when there were so many others for her to love ?

" But he never thought of these things, so he would rage against all women and he would steer his ship into the most awful waves and whirlpools, hoping that she would be wrecked and sunk, but his ship was never harmed ; and he would steer toward pirates, hoping that they would kill him for the chests of gold he had, but even the pirates, when they saw his blood-red sails, would cross themselves and flee from him. Then the seven years would pass and he would go on shore, and now, perhaps, a woman would say that she loved him ; yet when the time came she would not give her life for him, and he would throw himself down upon his face on the deck of his ship and steer nowhere, but still drive on through the wind, the black waves, the black storm, and his own blacker despair."

" Oh, my ! " said the little girl, " that's awfully nice and ghosty, but I thought this was the best fire we ever had, and now you don't see any-thing in it at all."

" Oh, yes, I do," I replied, " I have seen the ship all the time, that black ship with its sail of red flame. I have seen it tossing upon the sea, sweeping up till the flame of its sail almost touched the clouds, and then plunging down into the black water, but always, always rushing on with the storm around it and with never any rest. And I have seen the angry clouds tearing across the sky ; you can see them your-self when the smoke flies up the chimney, and then when the white flames are flickering and flashing up and then dying down, you can think that you see the lightning. Yes, and you can-not help hearing the wind, whistling up there around the top of the chimney as it would whistle through the rigging of a ship.

" The seven years have passed again, and now the ship has come to land, that the captain may try the little chance once more that has failed him so often. The red flame has dropped down, for the sails are furled, and the wind has stopped for a minute, too, while the ship is at anchor, and there is no need for the storm to pursue it. I see the captain walking on the shore and talking with the master of another ship that is anchored near by. The master tells him that he lives only a few miles away, and asks him if he will come and spend the night with him on shore. The captain replies that for a little rest at his house he will give the master untold treasures from his ship. He makes a sign to his men and they bring a big chest. He opens it and shows the master that it is full to the top of gold and pearls and rubies and emeralds, that flash and shine with all the colors that ever our drift-wood fire can show us.

" Such a price for a night's or a year's lodging the master never dreamed of. He cannot believe that such wealth is all for him, and he asks what he can ever do for the captain to earn it. `Have you not a daughter?' the captain asks. You see he knows how to go about his work without loss of time, even though he has never been very lucky in it.

"'Indeed I have,' the master answers, 'a good, true, lovely girl.'

" ` Give her to me,' says the captain, `for my wife ; that is all I ask.'

"The master thinks that is a good deal to ask, but not too much, when he looks at the chest again, and he says, joyfully enough : `You shall have her, indeed; I know such a man as you will make a good son-in-law ; come home with me quickly.'

" So each goes on board his own ship. The master sails first to lead the way, and then the red flaming sail springs up again and the black ship is off the shore. And the storm howls again too ; the waves rise, the clouds tear across the sky, and in a minute the ship has passed out of sight.

" Listen to the wind around the chimney. It was roaring and whistling a minute ago, but now it is not so loud. It grows fainter still, till its sound is no more a roar or a whistle, but only the lightest humming of a wind, and to me all the wind seems gone now and it is the hum of whirling spinning wheels that I hear. And what I see is a room where a dozen girls sit spinning and singing songs about their wheels and about their lovers. But one among them does not spin. She lets her wheel stand idle and only sits and looks at a picture that hangs on the wall. It is of a dark man with black hair, a black beard, and deep, piercing eyes; it is the captain whom we have seen so much already. The other girls laugh at her, say that she is in love with the picture, and ask her why she does not sing with them. She cannot sing their happy songs, she says. Then they ask her to sing by herself, and she sings them a song about the captain. It tells them his story, as we know it already, and as she sings they all stop their wheels and begin to gather around her, and in spite of all their merriment it moves them at last, as such a sad story ought to move anybody.

"And when she has finished they all say, Ah, poor fellow, if only some good woman would save him from his dreadful lot ! But who would do it and give up her own life?'

" ` I would do it,' she replies, ` and I hope that the winds may blow him here, so that I can tell him that I am ready to love him and to save him.'

" The others, who are very charming girls, no doubt, but just now not quite so noble and resolute as this one, are almost frightened to hear her talk so, and when somebody says that her father is coming they all slip away and leave her to meet him alone, while they chatter among themselves about what a strange girl she is to want to give her life for a man whose black hair and piercing eyes she has never even seen except in a picture. Her father is the shipmaster whom we saw, as you have guessed by this time, and he has brought the stranger captain home with him. ` This is my daughter,' he says ; `is she not all and more than all that I told you ? '

" Then, having always found her, no doubt, a good and obedient child, he tells her at once that the captain is to stay with them, and that he expects her to be his wife. Some girls do not like to be ordered to marry even the men they love; but she is so true and simple and kind that she means to love the captain with all her heart, and even her father's wish that she shall do so cannot change her. The father thinks very wisely that they will get on better without him, so he leaves them, and they do get on bet-ter at once. First they gaze for a long time into each other's eyes, those deep, piercing, sad eyes of the captain, and those true, soft, young eyes of the master's daughter. Then he thinks that her face is not strange to him, as he re-members, dimly at first and then more clearly, that he has seen this face in dreams many times, when it was the face of an angel who was to save him from his long weariness. And the dreams were not far wrong, for she looks into his eyes with no thought for herself, but only : This is one who has suffered for many years and must suffer for many years more, unless I love him and save him.'

"He asks her if she can give herself wholly to him, and she answers that, whatever his fate may be and whatever hers, she will take it all and will be all his own forever. ` If you knew what it would cost you to be true to me,' he says, `you would shrink away from me and try to save yourself.' " Never,' she answers ; ` let it cost what it will, I will be true to you till death.'

"I see the shore and the sea again. This time it is near the master's house, and the two ships are moored not far apart. The red sails are furled, but on the ship there is the little pale blue flame of a ghostly watch-fire. The captain comes out of the house and strides up and down along the shore. All the gladness that he had when we saw him last is goneŚno, not all, but there is doubt and perplexity with it now. The fact is that the captain has learned something now that he never knew before. All these weary years he has been longing and hoping for some good woman to love him, but he has never thought much about loving any good woman. What right had he to expect anything when he meant to give nothing ? He has never thought of this before, but he thinks of it now. And the reason is that now, when he has found a woman who loves him and will gladly die for him, he finds too that he loves her as well ; and if he loves her, how can he let her die for him ? She is so good and unselfish that perhaps it would be a happiness to her to do it, but it is the more to his credit that he does not think of that.

" That is why he paces up and down the shore and fights hard with himself. Only think of it. For all these many years, while other men were living happy lives and growing old, and their children and their grand-children were growing old too, the angry winds and waves have driven him about and have given him no rest ; now this woman could save him, but his love tells him that he ought to save her instead. Can he save her and go back again to the rage of the storm and live in it forever, live in it till doomsday ? Oh, it is a hard fight, but at last he answers yes ; all that he has borne so long he can bear still longer. The sea shall swallow his ship and cast it up again, the clouds shall sink down upon it, the winds shall drive it over the whole ocean, but she shall not die because of him. And it will not be with him quite as it was before ; now he will remember through all the hundreds of years that are to come that she loved him once, he will think of her always, and thinking of her he will wait for doomsday.

" I see him go on board his ship again ; he is calling to his men ; they are hoisting the sails ; see the red flame spring up again. The storm comes again too. Look at the black smoke that is like flying clouds, and hear the wind up there around the chimney. But now out of her father's house comes the master's daughter. She sees the ship speeding away, and in an instant she knows all the reason ; she knows it be-cause she would have done the same if she had been the captain. Then she runs to a high rock that stands out into the sea ; she calls through the loud wind that drowns her voice that she will come to him and will be true to him till death, and then she leaps from the rock into the rough, raging waves. But look ; the waves that very instant are rough and raging no more; the sea is all still ; the clouds are gone, and the wind is silent. The ship with the blood-red sails is sinking out of sight. See how the red flame dies down and the black hull is breaking to pieces. And right where it was I can see the captain and the master's daughter rising out of the sea together, with a beautiful light around them, as beautiful as all the colors of our fire can make it. They seem to float along the water, away and away, and I think the good fairies of the sea must be taking them to Fairyland or to some pleasant island, where they will always live happily together."

The fire blazed up brighter than ever for a minute and then dropped down again. " Come here to the window," I said ; " see how the fog has all cleared away and has left the moon shining down upon the sea. What a broad track of light it makes from the shore here where it is nearest us, away off to the edge of the sky ! How the little flecks and sparkles of light run and dance and chase one another, and how happy and glad they seem, riding the little ripples of waves in the light of the moon ! Are they the sea fairies, dancing and playing together and calming the water, to bring the sailors safe back to their homes, do you think?"



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