Out of the Fog
By A. Hyatt Verrill
From Sea Stories Magazine 20 October 1923 Vol. 6 No. 6.
Digital capture by Philip Bolton Jr. and Doug Frizzle May 2010.
My nerves were a-tingle, and it seemed as though I were suffocating, every sense was taut, and I strained my eyes and ears, striving in vain to penetrate that wall of gray that hedged us in. Once it seemed to me that I caught the sound of a siren; the thinnest, faintest wraith of a sound, but it was not repeated. Some ship far off was my decision. Again to my overwrought ears came an indescribable slatting that might have been the clatter of ship’s gear, the sound of oars, or even jumping fish or porpoise, for so deadening was the fog that all noises became strange and unrecognizable.
FIGURATIVELY speaking, I was on the beach. My ship, along with the other square-riggers that had been pressed into service and had so ably done their bit to win the war, had been laid up. Now the conflict was over, ships by the score were laid up, deserted and idle, or were being stripped of lofty masts and yards and converted to barges. The few years during which sailing ships had once more come into their own, were over, and crossed yards and towering pyramids of canvas were once more rare upon the seven seas. To be sure, I held a ticket for steam, but even there, deep-water seamen seemed a drug on the market. At least, there was no demand for experienced deep-water men. I soon found that this was an age of youngsters, at sea as well as on land, and boys wearing the gold lace of masters were pacing the bridges of liners, while I, with more years at sea than they had lived, was turned away.
It is hard to be called old when heart and body and mind are as strong and fit as ever; a tough thing to be looked upon as a has-been just because time has rolled over one’s head, even though the head carries a thatch as thick as at twenty and with scarcely a gray hair in it. But it is even harder when one is without billet, and has neither kith nor kin nor a close friend at hand with whom one can sit and pass the long and lonely evenings with a bit of chit-chat over a friendly pipe.
Such were my thoughts as I seated myself on the bench beside the Drive, and lighting my pipe, looked at the passing throngs of people with a bitterness in my heart and despondency in my soul. Everywhere was happiness, prosperity, wealth and gayety. Before me swept an endless procession of motor cars, millions of dollars speeding silently by upon tires, any one of which cost half of a master’s pay for a month, and nearer, throngs afoot, passed and repassing. Men, young and old; laughing, well clothed, with no care in the world, now that business was over for the day. Girls and women gowned in filmy dresses, smiling, bright eyed and full of youth. Married couples and sweet-hearts, while I, alone and without a ship, with no one to turn to for a kind word, watched them with hungry, longing, envious eyes. Why had fate passed me by? Why had no woman’s heart ever turned to me with a world of comfort when things went wrong or a cheering word or caress to lend encouragement when fortune frowned? It was hell; unable longer to stand the sight of so much happiness and prosperity in others, I arose, entered the park between the river and the Drive, and finding a secluded nook, threw myself upon the grass among the shrubbery, out of sight and almost out of hearing of the crowds.
Before me in the river rode two of Uncle Sam’s warships, their lattice-work masts like floating Eiffel Towers above their gray hulls. Puffing tugs edged slowly up with the tide, towing strings of canal boats and barges. Excursion boats, black with passengers and gay with bunting, churned past with thumping paddles. A huge floating palace from Albany slipped by as swiftly and silently as a ghost ship. Above a nearby dock rose the slender spars of a three-master. Scores of motor boats, launches and canoes broke the smooth oily surface of the Hudson, and a big tramp, her screw half out of the water, backed with roaring whistle from a sugar refinery under the Palisades, swung slowly in midstream and with thrashing screw nosed toward the bay.
It was a peaceful, pretty scene, unfolding and changing like a motion picture before my eyes. However, I scarcely saw it. But even though a sailor’s thoughts may be elsewhere, his mind, trained by years to keep a weather eye lifting, notes things unconsciously. And as the dull red hemisphere of the sun sank in a bank of dun gray beyond the Jersey shore, “a fog likely and maybe a nor’easter later,” was my mental comment.
It made little difference to me, however, what the weather might be. I had no ship under my feet to steer, with groaning siren or clanging bell, through a damp and clinging fog; no yards above my head with their vast squares of canvas to be shortened, furled and reefed. And so I sat, unheeding, brooding on my lot as the fog came drifting in from the sea. Stealthily, silently it came. Little wisps of vapor drifted across the darkening river and soon, for all that could be seen beyond the nearer shores, I might have been gazing across a thousand miles of sea as well as across the Hudson. Now the trees and shrubbery about were becoming ghostly and phantomlike and through the thickening mist, dim, shapeless figures hurried along the pathways, for the fog was chill and damp after the heat of the day and moisture dripped from the leaves and twigs.
Whether ashore or afloat, the deepwater seaman is ever uneasy in a fog, it is a menace that years have made him dread and fear; and as the gray curtain closed in upon the city, and I rested on my island of grass in a vast impenetrable sea of vapor, my nerves were keyed up.
Unconsciously I arose and peered about with anxious eyes, as though expecting a shearing bow and towering hull to come rushing out of the murk.
Then I laughed, pulled myself together, and climbing the hill, reached the asphalt walk and stepped off uptown.
It was a thick fog, not one of the nasty black, blinding fogs such as one gets in London, but thick enough as the old saying goes, "to cut with a knife." The trees and shrubbery beside the path were merely darker bits of gray; people passing on the farther side of the narrow walk were almost invisible, and only by their footsteps did I know they were there. The electric lights were but dull, luminous patches, like corposants at the tip of a yardarm, while the sound of voices, the screech of motor horns, the rumble of traffic and the tooting of ship’s whistles came faint, subdued and with strange, mystifying uncertainty of direction that sounds always have in a heavy fog.
I knew my bearings, however, and could navigate, even though I could scarcely distinguish the asphalt from the grass beside it, and descending the few steps to the path that borders the Mall near Ninety-Second street, I walked briskly along.
Suddenly, from ahead came a woman’s voice, expostulating, arguing, raised, I thought, in anger or fright. The words which she was using could not be distinguished, but their tone seemed to mean trouble and I paused to listen. And what a voice! Muffled and distorted as it was by the fog, it stirred me, went through me like a draft of wine. It was deep and full and rich, with music in it like the humming of wind in taut rigging. And then, to my tensed ears, came a little cry and the sound of running feet. There was trouble ahead! I sprang forward, but before I had more than made a move, a woman dashed from the fog straight into my arms.
The shock of the collision, well-nigh bowled me over, and the woman gasped. “My God!” she exclaimed and drew back. Then, glancing up, and evidently being reassured by my face, she uttered an hysterical laugh. “Oh, save me! They’re after me!” she cried.
It all took place in the twinkling of an eye. But even in that brief space of time I had taken her in as well as possible considering the darkness and fog. She was tall and slender, with a fair face, a mass of light-colored hair and was well dressed in dark clothes. There was no time to ask questions or make explanations. Hurrying feet were coming toward us, and thrusting the girl behind me, I braced myself to meet whoever was after her.
Hardly had I done so when two figures sprang out of the fog and struck me bow on. They were men, short, thickset, smooth-shaven, dressed in sporty rig, the sort of undersized lads you see in cabarets, or ogling girls along Broadway. With a curse they drew back and tried to spring aside, but my arms shot out, and my fingers closed on the collars of both and with the same motion I brought them crashing together. Their curses changed to smothered groans as their heads cracked, and releasing my hold, they dropped limply to the asphalt.
“There miss,” I said, turning to the girl. “I guess you’re safe from—” I gasped, speechless with surprise. The girl had vanished! Out of the fog she had come like a vision, and into the fog she had disappeared like a wraith. For a space I felt as though it had been a dream, as if it all had been a bit of imagination. But the two scalawags lying upon the walk were real enough. About the head of one was a widening pool of blood from his nose, which was evidently broken; the other was moving. Who or what they were I didn’t care. That the girl had asked for help was enough, and I stared at them curiously.
The nearest fellow was opening his eyes. As he saw me his lips drew back in a snarl, and ripping out a curse, he made a quick motion and there was a spurt of flame, a sharp report and a bullet whistled by my head. I had been in too many tight places and had had too many murderous rascals take pot shots at me to be frightened. But there was no desire on my part to be mixed up with the police, to be held as a witness if nothing worse, so, turning, I hurried away. Another shot rang out and missed me again, but the fog hid me and an instant later I was swallowed up as effectively as though I had leaped into the sea.
The whole affair was a most trivial incident, a mere matter of seconds and yet, as I made my way towards my room in the “Eighties,” my mind kept reverting to it, kept dwelling upon the girl from the fog. I tried to shake it off, laughed at myself and cursed myself for a consummate ass, but do what I might, my brain was filled with thoughts of the girl. No, not the girl, for I had scarcely glimpsed her face and would not have known her had I seen her. No, it was her voice. There was no denying it, for the first time in my life I was in love, in love with a voice!
That night was a troubled one for me. My mind was working at top speed, in an endeavor to picture the face and figure which would fit the voice. At last sleep came, but it was an uneasy sleep, a sleep of troubled dreams in which spirit voices, girls, pirates and fog were hopelessly mixed.
The next morning was raw and cold, the northeaster which I had foreseen had materialized. On awakening, my thoughts wandered off on the subject of the events of the night before. Where was the girl on this blustery morning? How foolish of me! She was an atom among six million. What chance was there of my ever seeing or hearing of her again? And if we should meet again, why should thoughts of love cross my mind? It was an asinine sentiment on my part. A weather-beaten old seamen like myself, with nothing but an ugly face, and a strong body to offer a woman, and even though a billet did turn up, my life would be one of wandering upon the seven seas and the five oceans for the Lord knew how long.
No, sentiment had no place in my life, and with an effort I threw aside all such thoughts and faced life as it was. To-day, something must turn up, something which would put leagues of tossing sea between me and that haunting voice. Such were my thoughts as, making my way against the driving rain toward the subway, I dropped into a cigar store to call up one of the shipping offices where I had left my name.
As the call was answered the receiver almost dropped from my shaking hand. The “Hello!” that had come to me was the voice of the girl from the fog! Were my senses going? Had my worries driven me mad? Or was it possible there were two such voices in the great city?
“Hello!” repeated the voice, and with an effort, shaking like a leaf as my equanimity slowly returned, “Is this the ‘Blue Cross’ Line?” I managed to stammer.
“No, you have the wrong number,” replied the voice that made my head reel and then cut me off immediately.
The hook jiggled madly under my impatient finger until Central’s rasping voice cut in.
“What number did you give me?” I demanded.
“Rector, 2891,” came the answer.
“No, you didn’t,” I cried. “You gave me—”
“Sorry,” came the conventional reply and an instant later my ears winced at a “Hello!” in harsh tones. “Mr. Moulton? Who’s speaking, please?”
How the words grated on my ears! How crude and rough after the deep, rich, musical note still ringing in my brain! But an instant later Moulton was talking.
“No, nothing doing yet, Herrick,” he said. “Sorry, captain. Call me up, say—er, next week some time.”
I hung up. Once more the girl from the fog had spoken to me, but she was as spectral and visionary as ever.
Going downtown on the subway, there was little of ships or shipping on my mind. Instead, in my ears sounded that voice, the voice like the music of wind in rigging. That was why it had stirred me, it was a note of the sea, and oblivious to the jostling, pushing crowd about, I conjured a mental vision, a picture. I saw a slim, tall figure standing on a heaving deck, a fair face framed in sou’wester, a girlish form hidden in shapeless reeling oilskins; eyes gazing with delight at the tossing seas and stinging spray; at the scudding murk and straining sails as her body swayed to the reeling, plunging ship, and her voice mingled with the music of the slashing gale through tautened rigging.
My thoughts were brought back to earth with a jerk, and my day dream came to an abrupt end as the train jolted to a stop at Bowling Green.
My destination was Hanson's office, it was my last chance and I was desperate. Needs must when the devil drives, and devils of maddening thoughts were driving me to distraction. Only work, long hours upon the bridge, the responsibility and the concentrated thoughts of a ship's officer could drive my foolish visions from my mind and I had determined to take anything Hanson offered—chief, second or even third if need be—on one of his rust-streaked, death traps of tramps.
And then Dame Fortune, who had turned her back upon me for so long, took pity and smiled. Forcing my way against the gale I had turned into Broad Street when a resounding blow on my shoulder almost sent me on my beam ends.
"You smotherin' ol' herrin’, you!" roared a deep voice that reminded one of the boom of surf or the thunder of wind in bellying sails.
I wheeled to look into the seamed mahogany face and the twinkling gray eyes of Jed Parker. Yes, Jed Parker, my first skipper. Jed, the hard-fisted old sea dog who first taught me to prick a course or squint through a sextant. Cap'n Jed, who had forgotten more of ships and the sea than most men learned in a lifetime, who had driven clippers with green water to their hatches across the North Atlantic; who had weathered Arctic floes, equatorial suns, and the frozen gales of Cape Horn, in many a stout old whaleship, and who still bore a stiff knee as a souvenir of a playful stroke from a sperm's flukes. Yes, old Jed, the tough down-east skipper, the terror of shirking crews, who had commanded more ships than there were hairs in his grizzled head, and who, withal, was the truest, stanchest friend and best seaman who ever trod a quarter-deck. Though years had passed since Jed had balanced himself to the heave of a deck, and though he had retired on a tidy fortune won from bonuses an’ lays of oil and bone, he could never get away from ships and shipping, and owned many a share in steam and sail. But I had never dreamed of seeing him in New York, for his home was in New Bedford. But here he was in the flesh, broad of beam, deep chested and rolling in his gait like an empty lighter in a ground swell, the same old leather-faced Jed of years ago.
"Jed Parker, by glory!" I cried. banging my hand into his.
“An' right as a trivet,” he boomed. "Hey, you son of a sheerpole, what ye doin’ drivin' along under close-reefed tops'ls down here? Thought ye was stompin’ the quarter-deck of the North Star out China way.”
“North Star’s laid up." I replied. "And looks like the same might be said of me. Just setting a course for Hanson's to ship as second or third on one of his old tea kettles.”
"Jompin’ Jehosephat!" roared Jed. “Ye goin' for to ship as mate! Not by a jugful. Here, you tarnation idjit, heave me yer towline an' come along of me. This here ain't no place for droppin’ anchor—plump in the fairway. Cripes, we'll be pinched for blockin' traffic!”
Glad of his company and overjoyed at meeting my old shipmate, I followed in his wake around the corner and seated myself across the table from him in a little cafe.
Jed's eyes twinkled and one lid dropped in a ludicrous wink as he grinned. “Have a nip, Ned?" he asked in what he intended for a whisper, but which sounded like a hoarse bellow. "Got some all-fired good stuff in the lazaret here."
Then, without waiting for a reply, he crooked a stubby gnarled forefinger at the waiter, who grinned knowingly.
"Drinking prohibition stuff, eh?" I chuckled as the man placed a couple of cups and a coffeepot before us.
"Prohibition nothing, not for a ol' derelict like me,” rumbled Jeb as he poured the dark liquid. "This here coffee growed in cane down to Jamaicy, 'bout forty years ago I reckon. Flush your scuppers with that, matey, an’ 'twill warm yer old heart.”
The powerful liquor tingled through my system. "Fine coffee," I commented, smacking my lips.
Jed roared and drew out his blackened pipe and bade me do likewise.
"Now, you fool son of a cro'jack" commenced the old man without further preamble, "Danged if I didn't save ye from su'cide. Shippin' secon' or third! Sufferin' grampusses, why in tarnation didn't ye jump offen the dock and be done with it?"
"Best there was." I replied, "No berths for masters going begging nowadays, At least for old fellows. I've combed the offices, Jed.”
He snorted like a spouting whale. “In N'York, mebbe," he replied. "But I bet ye, ye ain't been down east. Have ye now, ye everlastin' sojer?"
I shook my head. "Nothing doing in Boston or Portland,” I declared. "And I've been through Philadelphia, Norfolk and Baltimore.”
"Yep, by heck, an’ never gave nary a thought to New Bedford nor the old skipper what tanned yer hide many a time tryin’ to drive seamanship into that thick head of yourn."
"Didn't suppose there was anything sailing out of New Bedford now,” I responded.
"Ye consummate jackass, you!" cried Jed good-naturedly. "Didn't ye know ile’s gone skyrocketin' since the war an’ the ol’ ships is smudgin’ of God's blue sky with b'ilin' smoke from Cape Horn to Kamschataka? Now lookee here, son, there ain't no money in merchant shippin’, leastwise not for skippers, but there's tidy sums to be had whalin'. Want a berth?"
"Do I!” I cried. "Didn't I tell you I'd take anything?"
“Fine and dandy then," chuckled Jed. “You're a comnin’ along of me in t’night’s boat to New Bedford and ye’ll be standin’ on the quarter deck of the ol’ Aurora, outward boun’ inside a week. Put it there, old shipmate!”
Twenty-four hours later I was standing amid great stacks of stores and small mountains of evil-smelling oil casks on Merrill's wharf whatching the riggers putting finishing touches to the bark Aurora.
“She’s no beauty" I laughed in response to Jed's query. "Bow like a canal boat; lines like a Dutch barge; stern like a barn door and masts like a frigate.”
"Don't yet go frettin' 'bout looks,” cried Jed. "Holy mackerel, I ain’t no beauty but I aim I'm a tol’able good skipper. Why, ye son of a puppus, this here bark's done fifty year of whalin’ an' she's good for fifty more. Come aboard."
"Can't complain here," I admitted as we entered the cabin. "Neat and homey as a house ashore." I glanced about at the clean white paint, the bright-flowered chintz curtains and settee cushions, the boxes of geraniums in the sunlit stern lights and the canary in its cage abaft the mizzen mast.
"Had it fixed up a bit." remarked Jed. "One time I was thinkin' of takin' the ol’ hooker out myself, on'y the missus wouldn't hear of it."
In the interest and manifold details of getting the bark loaded and attending to papers, et cetera, I had almost forgotten the girl from the fog as I mentally called her. But, sitting there in the cozy cabin of the Aurora and thinking of the dreary dragging months to come, with only the rough, unkempt crew, and the hard-fisted, harder headed Yankee mates, and the Portugee boat steerers for company, I yearned for a woman, a wife, to share my lot. How different would that endless voyage be if only this cabin was brightened by a woman’s presence! If I could see her chirping to the canary or watering the flowers as I came down the companion way after a long storm-lashed watch! My thoughts were rudely interrupted by Jed. "H'm," he muttered, "Purty snug little cabin, Ned. All it needs is a missus-bit of a woman for to tidy it up an' fill it with chatter. Hey, ye long-legged son of a sea cook, why don't ye get spliced? By the eternal, ye'll be getting’ to be a consarned crusty ol’ bach'lor if ye don't watch out."
My coat of tan failed to hide the flush which spread over my face. "No, Jed,” I muttered, forcing a laugh. “Women don’t interest me a bit. Getting too old now and a girl'd have to have some nerve to take me on and be darned hard up to look at me twice,"
"Stow it!" commanded Jed "When kids begin to talk that a way they're mos' gen'rally head over heels in love an' aimin' for to get spliced. By gum, ye looked like as if ye was thinkin' of some pretty gal an' a wonderin’ how she'd look in this here cabin. Who be she, son, some señorita down to South Ameriky or a Jap'nese Geiska or jus' plain Yankee?"
"Neither," I declared, peeved a bit at the old fellow's almost uncanny reading of my thoughts "I've never really seen the face of the girl I could love enough to settle down with for life," Which was, after all, the literal truth.
Then I rose, gave a final glance about the cabin and went on deck. I had resolved to cast aside all thoughts of my brief romance, and made up my mind to forget the girl and her voice, by working as hard and as ceaselessly as any one of the sweating stevedores or roustabouts.
At last all was completed and a fussy tug towed us from our berth into midstream and with Cap'n Jed's foghorn like voice bellowing us "good luck and 'a greasy v'yage'" our towline straightened out and we slipped towards the harbor mouth. And as I stood on the after deck and saw the huge yards rise from the caps to the tune of a rousing chantey, I felt again the thrill of the sea.
"Now I'll give ye a warning before we belay.
Away-hay. Mow the man down!
Don't never give heed to what pretty gals say,
Oh, give us some time to blow the man down!"
So came the chorus as the men tailed on the halyards, and I felt that all futile thoughts had been left behind, and that, for months to come, the land and all it held would be but dim memories. My love was the broad blue sea; my sweetheart the ship; my heart was in my work, and with a short hard laugh at my own sentimental foolishness I vowed that I would think no more of the girl chance had thrown across my hawse in the fog.
There is little need to dwell upon the voyage or its events for the next few weeks. The crew was no better and no worse than the crew of any Yankee whale ship. There were a few old hands, carpenter, cooper, the three mates, and four boat steerers with a few Nantucket seamen, while the working force was the usual collection of thick-skulled human derelicts picked up at random from park benches and gutters.
My chief mate was a Taunton man named Sanders; my third a pudgy, round-faced little chap named Vickers, both masters of a vocabulary that would have shamed the most profane old windjammer's skipper. My second was a young fellow of perhaps five and twenty, a quiet boy with merry eyes and a crop of curly light hair, and I never heard him curse or swear, yet he accomplished far more with the men than the other two.
To Frank Thomson, as was his name, I took a great liking and the men were one and all with him. He was a thorough seaman, too, and a splendid whaleman. No darting guns or bomb lances for him! Such things, he held, were the tools of mere butchers, for Thomson was a sportsman through and through and loved the chase and kill of whales for the thrill, excitement, and danger of it. He was pitting his strength and brains against the brute strength, the stupendous power and the titanic fury of the biggest creatures God ever made and he gloried in the battle. He seemed to bear a charmed life when he drove his boat within six feet of a mountain of lashing, snapping, writhing murderous creature, and would plunge his hand lance into its vitals for the death thrust.
But the capture of whales, the back-breaking filthy job of cutting in and boiling have no place in this tale and are details of the whaleman's life which sound romantic but hold little of interest for landsman or merchant seaman either.
For weeks we cruised about the Atlantic with fair success, for whales were plentiful, albeit somewhat shy. So the casks in the Auroras hold were filling rapidly. But never did a wisp of gray mist come drifting across the waves like a veil of gauze, that vivid thoughts of that fog beside the Hudson did not come to me. And never did I step into the cozy cabin that I did not glance about as if half expecting to see a vision seated at the table or standing at the geraniums at the open ports. It was ridiculous, I knew, utter nonsense, for a tough, middle-aged old seaman to have such feelings and at times I cursed myself for being such a weak sentimental old fool. But, despite everything, the thoughts persisted and always, in the back of my brain, was a feeling, a conviction, that sometime, somewhere, the girl from the fog would again come into my life.
It was midsummer. The whales, denizens of warm waters, were following up the Gulf Stream, and cruising in vast circles, the Aurora worked gradually northward towards the banks.
In fair weather or foul the work went on. There were days when we rolled motionless upon an oily indigo sea, the sails flapping against the masts, the blocks and rigging creaking and purring and the men loafing, half-nude in the shadows of boats and deck houses. Days too, when under reduced canvas, we plunged through hissing mountainous seas with green water to the catheads, the stinging brine wetting the leeches of the straining sails and the churning wake stretching to the tossing horizon under the scudding gray clouds. Days of fair light winds when every stitch of canvas was spread and the bark slipped silently through the sparkling seas as easily as a yacht and the ripple of water about her bluff bows and the whisper of the wind in her rigging lulled one to sleep. Times there were, too, when out of the summer haze came creeping the gray fog and the canvas became a sodden gray in color, the planks and rails glistened as with frost, and over the long rollers our horn tooted a warning through the mist.
But we were out of the liners' tracks and ocean traffic, the fogs were light and though, as always, my nerves felt strangely tense as I paced the deck and peered into the murk, there was little real danger of collision and no need to worry.
But as we worked nearer to the banks and the coast, at last came the sort of fog I dreaded. The dense silent blanket of mist which seemed to weigh down the ship, and oppressed one as though it was a tangible thing. Thicker and thicker it became, from the deck the upper rigging was lost to view and the lower yards were but faint phantasmal indistinct forms. The ship seemed to fade into nothingness beyond the mainmast; the oily green swells seemed to steam as they swept out of the vapor and vanished a biscuit-toss away. And strange and ghastly came the voices of the men; the creak of blocks and sheaves seemed phantoms of sound, as though spirits of the fog were flitting about and whispering in the blue-gray shroud, Even the horn seemed smothered, far off and detached. We felt isolated, disembodied, unreal; floating suspended in a nebulous world and, save when I glanced over the seeping rail at the dull seas and swirling wisps of fog alongside, I could not believe we were moving, forging ahead through the oily water as if carried in the grip of the fog itself.
My nerves were a-tingle, and it seemed as though I were suffocating, every sense was taut and I strained my eyes and ears, striving in vain to penetrate that wall of gray that hedged us in. Once it seemed to me that I caught the sound of a siren, the thinnest, faintest wraith of a sound, but it was not repeated. Some ship far off was my decision. Again, to my overwrought ears, came an indescribable slatting that might have been the clatter of a ships gear, the sound of oars or even jumping fish or porpoise, for so deadening was the fog that all noises became strange and unrecognizable.
And then, suddenly pealing through the vapor, startling in its intensity, rang a human voice—a woman's cry. I stopped in my tracks, my heart ceased to beat and unseeing I stared, wide eyed, into the fog. The voice was unmistakable. There could be no other like it. It was the voice that had haunted me for weeks. And yet it was impossible. Was I going mad, had I taken leave of my senses, or was it an hallucination?
It was uncanny, weird, supernatural—here in midocean at the edge of the banks—to hear that voice. It could not be. It was surely a figment of my imagination, of my overwrought nerves. The girl herself was hundreds of miles distant—safe ashore—reading some magazine at her switchboard most likely. And yet here, to my tensed ears had come her cry, as clearly as it had first came to me out of the fog back in New York.
All this flashed through my mind with the speed of light. Scarcely a second had passed since the sound first rang in my ears. Then, sharp and hoarse, splitting the vapor, came another sound, a sound that galvanized me into instantaneous life and action, that drove all other thoughts from my mind. It was the roaring bellow of a steam siren close at hand. With a bound I reached the wheel and threw my weight upon the spokes. As I did so a gray shadow loomed above me, there was a grating, fending, tearing sound from aloft. The Aurora rocked and plunged in a foaming sea and the next second the bulk of the steamer was swallowed in the fog astern.
We had escaped destruction by the width of a hair! A few shrouds parted, a couple of braces snapped and the end of a topsail yard splintered.
When the steamer scraped by, something seemed to fall from her deck. An indistinct bundle sped down into the belly of the mainsail and, sliding from the hollow of the canvas, landed lightly on the deck.
I rushed forward and stood dumfounded. The bundle of gray had come to life! A woman in a long coat was picking herself up from the deck. Gingerly testing her limbs, as if to assure herself there were no bones broken, she rose and glanced curiously up at the huge square of canvas, as if to see what had interrupted her plunge and saved her. Then she turned and saw me.
“Gosh, that was some bump!” she exclaimed.
At her words my head reeled and I clutched at a shroud for support. It was she—the girl! Once more she had come like a vision out of the fog! It was past all belief, incredible, but true. There in the flesh, upon the deck of my ship, stood the girl of my dreams. I felt dazed, utterly incapable of speech or motion, and like a dolt stood there staring, silent, too utterly amazed, confused and at a loss for words.
Then, with a rush, the blood surged back through my veins. There were a thousand things I wanted to say, a thousand endearing words rushed to my lips. But instead of giving them utterance, I stepped toward her and only words that came from me were: "Why, you're the 'girl from the fog'!"
For an instant she looked puzzled, as if not comprehending, and then her eyes twinkled with merriment, her nose tilted, her mouth parted in a gay smile and from her lips came a low, rippling peal of laughter as full of music as the soft gurgling of water under a ship's counter.
"Oh," she exclaimed. "Of course. You're the 'man in the fog'!"
I was, both literally and figuratively. "Are you hurt?" I stammered, feeling that it was my duty to say something, "That was a fearful fall you had."
“Fall!” she cried in her thrilling voice. ''That wasn't a fall. I jumped!”
"Jumped!” I echoed "Why?"
"I wanted to get away,'" she answered. "I hate him! The beast! It was my stepmother’s fault, she wanted me to marry him. Ugh!” She shrugged her shoulders and frowned. "And I couldn’t get away,” she went on. “It was terrible and when the yacht ran against your ship and everyone rushed to the side I just jumped.”
While she had been speaking, my gaze was fastened on her, staring, almost rudely, my hungry eyes absorbing every detail of her face and figure, fearing, almost, that once again she might vanish into the mist as she had done before.
In romance, the woman should be beautiful beyond compare, and were I writing fiction I would say that she, who had come to me there upon the fog-drenched deck, was beautiful. But, to tell the truth, she was not. Pretty yes, but I thanked God she was no doll-like ideal.
She was tall and slender, and wrapped in her gray clinging cloak, she seemed but a wisp of the fog, which swirled about us, a visionary thing that, with a breath, might dissolve before my eyes. Her face, framed in masses of pale-gold hair, was piquant, almost elfin, fair of skin, changeable as the restless sea and reflecting, as the sea reflects the azure sky, or fleecy clouds or lowering scud, each varying thought and mood. Her chin, rounded and firm, held a hint of determination, and above it her lips seemed ever on the point of parting in a smile or drooping in a pout. Her nose was thin and sensitive and turned up slightly at the tip, her eyes were the gray-green of the waves of the sea and as fathomless as their depths. Not beautiful, as standards go perhaps, but to my eyes, the fairest of all women.
All this I saw as she was speaking and though I cared not one jot who the "he" might be, yet my blood boiled and my fists clenched at the thought of any living man or woman daring to bring trouble or worry to her and my heart swelled with pride and I thanked heaven that twice it had been my lot to aid her in time of need.
But now she had ceased speaking and I must say something. "But they'll miss you and come back searching for you." I protested, unconsciously voicing the inmost forebodings of my heart.
Again she laughed. "But they can't find me—if they do,” she chuckled. “Not in the fog.”
“But the fog may lift. They have steam and can overhaul us and—”
"But you won't let them, will you?” she pleaded, and with eyes upturned to mine, she drew a step nearer and placed one dainty hand upon my arm.
At her touch I trembled like the weather leech of a royal and at that moment, had she ordered me to scuttle my ship or to leap into the sea, most gladly would she have been obeyed.
"Never," I declared, barely able to get the word from my mouth. "That is, if you don't wish to go back."
"Great Scott, no!" she ejaculated. "I want to stay here—here on this dear old ship. I just love it!"
My heart leaped with joy at her words. She loved the Aurora. She wanted to be here with me. But my heart sank and the happiness fled from me. It was impossible for her to remain. There were proprieties to be observed. A whole ship full of rough men was no place for a dainty, attractive slip of a girl. She must be put aboard the first passenger vessel we met, or I must head for the nearest port; so slowly, hesitatingly and in a dead colorless voice, I told her of these things.
"But I don't want to go ashore," she insisted. "I can trust you, I know. I just love the sea and I was never on a sailing ship before. It will be awfully jolly—sailing on and on and hunting whales. Oh, captain, please do let me stay!"
"God knows I'd like to," I muttered. "But there would be scandal—gossip. Well, you'll have to stop with us for a bit. It may be days before we sight a liner or make the land. Come, you must think me a rough, rude man to keep you standing here. There's a cozy cabin with a spare berth. You'll catch your death out here in the fog."
Trustingly and smilingly she tripped aft by my side, and I turned my face away to hide my blushes as I showed her into the cabin and saw my vision realized at last, as she chirped to the bird and sniffed at the geraniums.
Madly as my feeling surged within me, they did not get beyond my control. Some glimmerings of common sense were still left in my brain and the realization that I must be patient, that I could scarcely start my courtship the first time we had really met and that, as she was a guest on my ship, my feelings must be held in check and no advantage taken of her position.
So, showing her the vacant berth she could call her own and telling her to make herself comfortable, I hurried on deck whistling a bit of an old whaleman's song.
The fog was lifting, and within an hour the sea stretched clear to the far horizon with a cloudless sky arched overhead. Not a sail, not a smudge of smoke, broke the rim of the sea and a load seemed to be lifted from my mind as the empty sea impressed itself upon me, for I had more than half expected to see the yacht within a few miles of the Aurora and, had she hailed me, I should have been in a dilemma.
However, all was well on that score and presently the girl appeared on deck. She had taken off her wrap and was clothed in a light fluffy dress and, as she stood balancing herself to the gentle roll of the ship, her face glowed and her eyes shone.
"You're a born sailor Miss—" I remarked admiringly.
"Norton," she supplied, and added: “But please don't be so formal, I'd much rather be called Mildred. Oh I think this is adorable! No cinders and coal dust and no joggle and rattle of engines. And I’m crazy to see you catch a whale. Are we likely to see one?”
I laughed at her enthusiasm. “That’s hard to say Miss—Mildred,” I said. “We may raise a whale any minute or we may cruise for days without sighting a blow.”
Then, for the next hour, I was in the seventh heaven of bliss, for Mildred begged me to tell her everything about whaling, she had to inspect the boats and gear, the cutting in-tackle and spades, the try works and the blubber room. And as, with her by my side and her full throated voice and rippling laughter in my ears, I showed her over the ship, I thought how wonderful it would be to have her ever thus. To have her always with me, the companion of my voyages, a wife to share my joys and sorrows, to confide in and to fill my life with such happiness as I had never known. For I saw, even in those first few hours, that she was not only a tender, lovable woman but a born sailor with a love of ships and sea as deep as my own and that, in her, the man she loved would find not only a sweetheart but a shipmate and pal as well.
Of course the crew stared and gaped as we went about. No doubt they passed many a remark and perhaps jests as well among themselves. But they showed nothing but respect in my presence or hers. And Mildred's gay laughter and bright smiles were enough to win the heart and soul of the blackest scallawag who ever shipped on a whaler. Moreover, they could see she was no landlubber, for her body swayed to the heave of the deck as naturally and unconsciously as my own, her quick mind grasped details and understood explanations instantly, she remembered the seamen’s terms and the names of ropes and rigging and in a few hours she could speak of buntlines, clews, halyards and braces as glibly as the boat steerers or mates and it filled me with delight to hear her say "for'ard," "to’gallant," "fo’c’s’le," or the hundred and one other clipped terms of sea.
From the first, too, she had won the hearts of the mates. Surly, hidebound old Sanders smiled for the first time in his life, I believe, when she talked to him. Rotund little Vickers flushed a deeper scarlet under his red skin and stammered like a schoolboy when she addressed him and Thomson followed her with hungry eyes that brought uneasy pangs of jealousy to my heart.
And her presence wrought marvelous change on the old bark. For a whale ship the Aurora was neat and clean at all times, for I detest a dirty ship, but no whaler ever showed whiter decks or brighter metal than glistened under the sun or sparkled with dry brine than the Aurora after Mildred came on board. Between the deck houses a brand-new snowy awning was stretched to form a shade for our guest. The ropes were ever neatly coiled. Not a minute of the day passed that there was not some bit of paint to be retouched or a stained spot of planking to be scraped under the eagle eyes of the mates. The men appeared in cleanly scrubbed dungarees and the officers took care to wear their shoes and coats and dug out much creased serges or white ducks from their sea chests.
In fair weather or foul, Mildred was always on deck and she positively gloried in the heavy winds and mountainous, tumbling seas that came tearing out of the northeast the third day she was on board.
As Sanders remarked, she was a "real stormy petrel," and as she stood in the driving rain clad in her oilskins and sou'wester, her hair glistening with sparkling drops of water, her face aglow, one hand grasping a backstay as she swayed to the heaving, pitching deck, while the stinging brine was hissing showers over the rails, I saw at last the picture I had conjured up in my mind.
And when the first whale was raised, two days later, she was in a perfect whirlwind of excitement. Wild with excitement, she jumped to the rail in order to get a glimpse of the creature that the lookout had sighted. She cried out in an ecstasy of delight when the monster rose to blow and rolled its black bulk lazily in a welter of foam upon the surface of the sea. As the men rushed to the boats and the sheaves purled and creaked, fall were slackened, she was there to see all that was going on. Two boats were lowered and in the hurry and excitement she managed to leap into Thomson’s boat and, before I realized what had happened, I caught a glimpse of her golden head as the men bent to their oars. For a moment I was furious, as it was no place for a woman, even of Mildred’s sort, and there were deadly perils to be faced.
I shouted to Frank to come back, but my voice was lost or my words misunderstood, and the only answer I received was the wave of a slim arm as the boat dashed towards the distant whale.
Then my irritation gave place to envy and I wished I had lowered away myself and had taken Mildred in my boat. However, all such thoughts were in vain. The boat was speeding across the seas and the girl who occupied all my thoughts was in it. There was nothing to do but watch, and I knew that she could not be in better hands than Thomson's. He might be a daredevil under ordinary conditions and he might even take risks that would make an old whaleman hold his breath, but, with the girl along, I felt sure he would be more careful and might use the darting gun and bomb lance to insure her safety.
But in this hope I was to be disappointed. As the boat drew near the whale the boat steerer laid aside his oar, rose and braced himself in the bow with the heavy hand iron in his grasp, Thomson was going to show Mildred what real whaling was, and I cursed him for a reckless idiot and for his desire to show off before her. The boat was now a scant twenty feet from the huge hulk of black skin that rose, like the bottom of a capsized ship, and my eyes were glued to my glasses as I clung to the main rigging, watching and praying that all might go well.
It was a tense moment, Mildred, her hands grasping the boat’s rails, bent forward, striving to peer past the oarsmen at the heroic-looking figure of the harpooner braced with every muscle taut and with the iron poised. Thomson, the great steering oar in his hands, was silently sculling the craft inch by inch nearer to the giant whale. I saw the men, with lifted oars, waiting with bunched muscles for the thud of the iron, the signal to “back all” that would send their boat clear of the lashing flukes and shearing jaw. Then the harpooner lunged forward, the iron sped as it buried itself in the whale’s side the oars struck water as one. Back the boat darted. Mildred was thrown to her seat and the stupendous flukes rose and came crashing down in a geyser of foam and spray within five feet of the tiny craft. My heart skipped a beat. I thought all lost, the boat stove, and in an agony of mind I could picture the men floundering in the sea and Mildred, helpless, struggling, there in that awful turmoil beside the infuriated whale.
Boat, men, Mildred, all were hidden in the showers of foam and the upflung green water. But the next instant the craft shot into view, Mildred’s golden head was still there and the boat steerer was scrambling aft while Frank was crawling forward as the boat sped at dizzying speed after the maddened, frightened whale.
For the time they were safe, but the greatest peril, the most awful danger, was yet to come. The whale might mill and whirl the boat in sickening circles. He might sound and reel out hundreds of fathoms of line, or he might breach and leaping high, strive to rid himself of the galling iron in his side. And though there was fearful danger in any or all of this yet Thomson, I knew, could avoid real peril in such things. But the time would come when the whale, temporarily exhausted, would come to a standstill and the boat would be urged close to his side for the kill. There was where the most imminent, the deadliest peril lurked. To kill with the hand lance Frank must bring his craft within six feet of that death-dealing bulk, that hundreds of tons of madness, more terrible than a wounded elephant, more savage than a tiger at bay, more destructive and irresistible than an avalanche. Never had I been under such a strain. Never had I been so excited, so nervous, so filled with forebodings as while I watched that boat drawn hither and thither by the stricken whale. And I thanked God that the creature, instead of bearing straight away and towing the boat beyond my sight, swung and milled and even drew nearer to the Aurora as time passed and his strength grew less.
Then, at last, I saw the giant cease his mad struggles to break free and, blowing constantly, rest motionless upon the surface. Now was Frank’s chance and with bated breath I watched the men haul in the slack line as the boat was urged forward. Thomson rose and unsheathed the slender lance that would, if all went well, end the life of the gigantic cetacean. Nearer and nearer they crept. The boat seemed about to bump into the whale’s side. I could imagine the wide-eyed, half-frightened, expectant look on Mildred’s face as she kept her gaze fixed on Frank, standing with poised, uplifted lance. Then his muscles bunched, he lurched forward, the lance was buried deep in the whale’s side. The next instant a volcano seemed to burst into eruption under the sea.
Great green billows reared high and broke in yeasty foam. Sparkling spray was flung fathoms into the air. There were glimpses of stupendous twenty-foot flukes thrashing like the screws of a steamship, of a massive head leaping up and crashing down with the noise of thunder, of a giant, shearing, thrusting, awful tooth-armed jaw and of a tiny white speck that tossed and rolled and pitched, one moment disappearing, the next instant seemingly hurled to destruction. I felt sick and faint and could barely cling to the shrouds as I thought of the girl in the midst of that seething, awful circle of death.
But it was all over in an instant. That any craft could survive, that any human skill could avoid death, there beside the monster in its dying flurry, seemed impossible. But as the blows of the flukes grew less, as the head reared itself but a few feet and as the waves calmed down I saw that all were safe.
Then, through my lens, I saw the crimsoned spray that told the glad tidings of the whale’s end—he was spouting blood—and a moment later he rolled over, a giant flipper rose like a black flag against the horizon and I breathed freely once more. The monster was “fin up.” The whale was dead and Mildred was unharmed.
And then my heart sank. I felt cold, numbed and sick. I had seen Mildred scramble forward in the boat, throw her arms about Thomson’s neck and kiss him—there in plain view of all the men.
Weakly, feeling as if the world had dropped from under my feet, I climbed slowly to the deck and with bowed head walked aft, utterly disheartened and discouraged. All my dreams were at an end. She loved Frank. I was a weather-beaten old sailor. His youth, his strength, his daring had won her and henceforth I would have no place in her mind, no right ever to tell her of my love. And bitterly I cursed myself for not having gone in on the whale with Mildred in my boat.
It was a crushing blow to me, but I might have expected it. Indeed, at times, I had been vaguely disturbed and even a bit jealous as Thomson had paced the decks with Mildred by his side or they had stood together watching the ship’s wake in the moonlight. But I had a cast all such doubts and suspicions from me. Partly because, loving the girl, I felt somehow my love must be returned, and partly as I had grown—perhaps a bit superstitiously—to think that fate had brought her to be out of the fog and that she was destined to be mine.
But now, as I waited and thought of the past few days since Mildred had come aboard, many little things and events came vividly to my mind. I remembered low-toned conversations between the two; recalled times when they had been seated close together in the cabin as Frank explained the charts and courses to her; of hours they had spent laughing and joking; of the times their hands had touched when Thompson had tried to teach her to squint through a sextant, and of the way her eyes had brightened whenever he appeared.
And now, in my black mood, I found, that when the events of the past few days had been analyzed, she had never shown a sign, or given a hint of taking other than friendly interest in me, or a realizing my feelings for her. To her no doubt I was just as serious-minded old skipper, a good friend and the man who, by chance, had saved her from those rascals in New York. And while she had looked into my face with many a smile, had at times touched my arm or hand with hers and had been in much in my company, still no word or act or look had been —I now realized—other than she might have given any friend with whom her lot was cast.
Far better, I thought, had she never came aboard the Aurora. Hard as it had been to bear my loneliness after I had first caught a fleeting glimpse of her face and had heard her voice, it would be harder far to have her here, to hear her voice constantly, to see her at every turn and yet to know that her heart was another’s.
Could I go on that way? It was problematical. Could I work and perform my duties day after day with Mildred so near and yet as far distant as the stars? It hurt me even to think of the return of the boat and of being forced to show no sign and give no hint of my feelings.
I liked Frank—had always liked him—and I could not blame him for falling in love with Mildred and even less could I blame her. If ever two were made for each other, if ever man were fitted for a woman and woman for a man, it was these two. But that made it no easier for me. Of course she never could have seen anything in me to appeal to her. I was a fool to have thought it possible with my weather-beaten, leathery face—on the contrary it might even be repellent to the girl—and bitterly I swore my self-conceit that led my thoughts to a possibility of winning her.
Of course I could run for port or the steamer lanes and put Mildred ashore or aboard some liner and thus make it easier for me. But such a thought never crossed my mind. After she had told her story I never again suggested her leaving the Aurora, for despite the fact that a whale ship was no place for a girl, that she would be forced to put up with course food, lack of comforts and many other hardships, yet I could not bear the thought of letting her go back to the life and misery she had endured. Of course her presence upon the bark might, if known, place her in a most unenviable position. But all along my thoughts had been to win her, to marry her at the end of the cruise and now, as far as any scandal was concerned, it would be a wedding with Frank as groom instead of myself and she would be safe from any hint of gossip or from those who had made her life a nightmare in the past.
Whenever I thought of what Mildred had gone through before she found refuge on my ship my blood fairly boiled and as it again came to me, I berated myself as a weakling to go down before my blow when she, a mere delicate girl, had suffered and endured for years and had kept her bright smile, her merry laugh and her gayety.
Her mother, she had told us, had died when she was an infant and her father had married a narrow-minded, vain and heartless creature who had hated Mildred for the place she held in her father’s heart and the close companionship between them. To Mildred, her father was little short of a demigod.
They had been all to each other—pals in every sense of the word—and he, poor man, realizing too late the sort of woman he had taken as his second wife, had lavished all his love and attention and had shared his every thought with his daughter. And then, when Mildred was just the age when she most needed a parent’s love and care and confidence—barely fifteen—her father had died and she was left heartbroken, desolate, to the care of the stepmother who had never dared to show her true colors during her husband’s life. Thinking only of herself, and inordinately vain, she had spent the little fortune left by Mildred’s father upon her own pleasures and finery with never a thought of the girl of whom she was bitterly envious for her youth, her vivacity and the friends she made.
She was, thank God, neither a really vicious or cruel creature and never abused the girl. But perchance Mildred would have suffered less had she done so than under the wearing, nerve-racking, constant annoyances to which her stepmother subjected her. She was deprived of all the things a girl holds most dear, pretty clothes, dainty shoes, boy friends and parties. Never was she allowed a dollar for her own use, although her stepmother dressed like a queen as long as the money held out. Then, as the funds dwindled, Mildred had been scolded, berated and called useless until, in desperation, she had found work at the switchboard of a big downtown office. As the dear girl had told us of her life there, of the insults, the ignominies, the rude remarks to which she had been subjected, her eyes filled with tears, her voice shook and she chocked back the sobs, while I longed to have the brutes who had annoyed her here upon my ship to flay them alive with ropes’ ends and to beat them to pulps with handspikes.
But all that had gone before was as nothing compared to the things the girl had suffered when her stepmother, coming to the end of her finances and confronted with long overdue bills, fell into the clutches of a despicable rascal who showed her an easy way to earn the money that would enable her to live in the luxury she craved.
This was the “he” the girl had mentioned when first she leaped upon the Aurora’s decks. A fat and wealthy rake, a man who had accumulated a fortune in underhanded ways and who was engaged in the remunerative if dangerous occupation of rum running. Not that he risked his own precious carcass or his freedom by taking an active part in the illicit business. But he was the brains, the capital and under him a host of agents plied the trade. To him, Mildred’s stepmother was already under obligations and when, in final extremity, she went to him, he outlined his plan to have her aid him in disposing of his smuggled liquor. With her insatiable love of finery and a gay life, the means by which she won the wherewithal mattered nothing. But it was not long before her nerve gave way and Mildred, despite her protestations, was forced to act as go-between.
Ever in deadly fear of the law, going to questionable spots at the dead of night, exposed to a thousand dangers, to perils, insults and overtures that made her faint with terror, the girl was completely in the power of the fiend who bore her father’s name and had no friend in whom she could confide.
And at last the blows fell. The girl was followed, the stepmother’s place raided, the liquor seized and the woman arrested. But she never spent an hour in a cell. At her call “he” came. The diamond-studded, paunchy, vulgar, crooked politician, and at his word the woman stepped forth free and never a newspaper printed her name in connection with the matter.
But she had bought her freedom at an awful cost. Williams, the fat, sensuous grafter who had rescued her, had not done so without bargaining for a reward. He had seen Mildred and in his bleary, dissipated eyes she had found favor and he bickered with the woman for the girl’s hand in marriage as he would for a horse or a cargo of rum.
To Mildred he was detestable—a loathsome reptile with his puffy, mottled cheeks and snakelike filmy eyes; but she was hopeless. She was forced to receive has attentions and all her protests and pleas to the unscrupulous woman who had sold her were in vain. Indignantly she repulsed his advances. Contemptuously she spurned his sneering offers of marriage, but all to no purpose. At last she could endure it no longer. With only her pitifully few belongings she slipped away, secured a position at a switchboard in an office and for a time breathed freely. But William’s spies were everywhere. Her voice was unmistakable and soon she felt that her whereabouts were known. As she left the office one night she was followed, dogged, and fearing to go directly to her room, she alighted quickly at a subway station and hurried to the park beside the river where she thought she had thrown her pursuers from her tracks. Then deadly fear had gripped her as she saw the two rascals approaching, and rising from her seat, she fled, seeking a policeman, some one for aid. Then had come the fog, the ruffians had tried to seize her, and in the nick of time, I had arrived upon the scene.
As she told her tale, most bitterly did I regret that when I had knocked their sleek-haired heads together I had not stopped to complete the job and scatter their evil brains upon the pathway.
But my help had availed her little in the end. Her stepmother and Williams had appeared at her room. She had been half carried, half forced to a waiting limousine and had been spirited aboard the villain’s yacht with only the heartless, designing, detestable woman and Williams for company. There the dastardly beast could gloat over her to his heart’s content. She was threatened with imprisonment for her part in bootlegging if she did not consent to marry him and she was compelled to submit to his disgusting attentions until, in her extremity, she had determined to leap into the sea rather than endue it further.
Then came the fog once more to her aid. The yacht had scraped along the Aurora’s side and in the scurry and excitement on the steamer no one had noticed Mildred’s purpose. Instantly, without hesitation, she had risked life and limb and had leaped through the shroud of mist to my ship’s decks.
And having heard this story—broken by tears and sobs at times—and loving her as I did, the thought of putting her ashore was impossible. No wonder she had pleaded that she might remain on board. No wonder that even the greasy, wallowing old bark seemed a veritable haven of refuge to the girl after all she had been through.
All these thoughts passed through my mind as I stood there, while the Aurora’s yards were swung and we bore towards the distant boat and the dead whale, my mind cleared and matters assumed a new light. All I had suffered and was still suffering had been my own fault. I had had no business to let my silly sentiment carry me away in the first place. Then I should have told Mildred of my feelings and should have learned my fate in the beginning. I had only myself to blame for having thought, in my monumental self-conceit, that the joyous young girl could ever give a second thought to an old sea dog like myself. I would grin and bear it, and take it like a man.
And now the boat was close. Mildred was waving her hand to us upon the ship and presently the boat came pulling alongside with the immense black bulk of the whale in tow and Frank rose and aided Mildred to leap to the Aurora’s deck.
“Oh, Captain Ned!” she cried in her ringing, enthusiastic tones. “It was just perfectly wonderful! And Frank was so splendid! He was just like a Greek god standing there with his curls waving in the wind and his lance ready to strike! And I was so excited! I thought certainly we’d all be killed—we were so terribly near the whale—but I knew Frank wouldn’t let anything happen to me and when it was all over and I could breathe again I just ran right up to him and—gol darn it—I kissed him! Wasn’t that terrible, Captain, right there before the men?”
“I saw you,” I managed to stammer. “But it wasn’t so terrible. I only wished I’d been in his place.”
“Oh, you old spy!” she exclaimed. “I’ve—I’ve a mind to kiss you too!”
Before I knew what she was about she flung herself forward and had planted a kiss on my rough unshaven lips.
What a thrill ran through me at that touch of her lips! I clenched my fists until my nails bit into my calloused palms. But it was all over in a breath. The men chuckled, Frank laughed and I, too, strove to take it in the spirit it had been given and forced a smile to my lips and uttered what, I hoped, would pass as a laugh.
Fortunately for me, perhaps, my mind was so busy occupied with the evil smelling work of cutting in and boiling that I had no time to think of my troubles, for with an eighty-five-barrel whale alongside there was feverish, unceasing toil for all on board for many hours.
And when at last it was over and, wearied to exhaustion, I threw myself on my bunks a new thought came to me. Perhaps the kiss she had given Frank meant no more than the one she had given me—a mere impulsive girlish caress given in a moment of excitement. But the next moment even this solace was denied me as I reasoned that if the kiss had meant nothing when bestowed on Thomson it meant even less, if anything, when pressed upon my lips. And, too, I remembered how different had been her attitude as she had kissed him in the boat. She had thrown her arms about him with a gesture full of affection and had seemed—to me as I had watched—to linger over the caress. No, there was no doubt that she and Frank were sweethearts and though—when I again went on deck—my actions toward Mildred did not change, unless it was that I was even more attentive to her, nevertheless it was a terrible ordeal for me.
And in the days that followed, with my awakened vision I looked upon matters in a new light, I realized how blind I must have been in the past not to have seen that Mildred’s thoughts were all of Thomson. Not that she devoted herself to him and neglected me for often, of her own accord, she would join me in a stroll about the decks. At times too she would seat herself by my side in the shade of the spare boats on their skids overhead or would stand beside me at the rail and would talk softly as the silvery wake swept away from the tossing counter across the black sea beneath the stars. Sometimes her hand would rest trustingly upon my arm or would snuggle into my hard old palm and she would look into my face with her starry glowing eyes and my heart would seem near bursting and all my self-control was needed to prevent myself from blurting out things I had no right to say.
But gradually I reasoned, cursed and argued myself into a sensible point of view and no longer felt dispirited and bitter and life, after all, seemed worth while even if Mildred were another’s.
She had now been upon the Aurora for a week and the bark, cruising in vast circles, had covered many miles of ocean and yet was not far from the spot where she had been when Mildred had taken her desperate leap through the fog. We had sighted many sails—fishing schooners, a few coasters and another whale ship—but no steamers.
One morning a smudge of smoke showed itself above the horizon and as the masts and funnel of a steamer rose above the sea’s rim I called Mildred’s attention to it.
“There’s a chance for you,” I said jokingly. “Say the word and we’ll signal them and put you aboard.”
“If you talk like that I shall think you want to be rid of me,” she replied with a little pout. “I like the Aurora much better than any old steamer,” she added, with a quick glance and a smile at Frank.
But it was soon evident that, even had she wished to transship to the steamer, there would have been no need to signal, for the stranger was heading directly for us and soon disclosed herself as a large ocean-going yacht.
When within a quarter mile, she slowed down and a launch dropped from her davits, white-clad sailors and a blue-coated figure tumbled into it and the craft headed for the Aurora.
Wondering what they wanted from us I stood gazing across the calm sea while Mildred and Thomson stood near.
Suddenly the girl uttered a strange little cry. “Oh, that’s the Norma!” she exclaimed. “I know it is. It’s his yacht and—and he’s coming to get me.”
“Don’t you fear, little girl,” I said reassuringly. “It’ll take more than he to get you off here. Just let me attend to him.”
She looked at me for a moment, an odd expression on her face and then her lips parted in that low throaty laugh. “Oh, I’m not afraid now,” she replied.
The boat swept up and ran under the gangway. As I stepped forward, a scowl on my face, my fists clenched, an undersized young fellow in yachting togs leaped onto the deck. Before I’d taken five steps Mildred dashed past me and threw herself into the man’s arms!
“Oh, you dear!” she cried. “Did I worry you half to death? You will forgive me—” The rest of the sentence was muffled as she buried her head on his shoulder.
I stopped in my tracks absolutely dumfounded, as surprised as if the mainyard had crashed down from aloft.
The next instant the girl raised her head and turned her flushed face towards me. “Oh, Captain Ned!” she exclaimed. “I suppose you’re horribly shocked. But it’s only my husband—really.”
I grasped wildly, blindly, at a backstay for support, swaying like a drunken man. Her husband! And then, as the fellow—grinning somewhat sheepishly—stepped toward me, I seemed to be taking leave of my senses. It was the rascal who had shot me in New York!
“Guess we’ve met before, captain,” he remarked. “That was an awful wallop you gave me and Jack. Mighty glad I didn’t wing you though.”
I ignored him, hardly knew what he was saying, but fixed my eyes on Mildred. “Then that yarn about Williams—” I began.
“Oh, I know you’ll forgive me,” she interrupted, biting her lip and looking down at the deck. “It was—was just a—a story. You see I had quarreled with Tom and said I’d run away and leave him and he laughed and asked me where. And just then your ship came along and—and I was angry and though I hated him and jumped. I wanted to make him sorry and then I knew, if I told you, you’d not let me stay and it was such fun and I thought how nice ’twould be to be a heroine and everything so I made up the story. But—” turning to the man. “I didn’t think how worried you’d be, Tom, honest I didn’t, and that you might think I was drowned.”
“I didn’t,” he said. “I saw you jump and knew you were safe, but I lost track of you in the fog. Say, that jump would make a cracking stunt in a film! You see, captain,” addressing me. “We’re in pictures.”
“And so ’twas your husband who was the thug who was chasing you after you in the park and tried his best to fill me full of lead for my good intentions?” I said sarcastically as my surprise gave way to anger and resentment at the way I’d been hoodwinked.
“That was just a mutual mistake, captain,” put in the fellow before Mildred could reply. “We’d been talking about holdups and Milly said how easy ’twas to get away in the fog—bet we couldn’t catch her—and dashed off. Then, when you bobbed up and grabbed us, we though you were a real holdup man, and being a bit dazed after that crack you gave us, I blazed away. I hope you’ve no hard feelings.”
I didn’t like the fellow, his appearance or his manner, and I felt a grim sense of satisfaction at having cracked his head.
“H’m,” I growled. “I suppose that would have made a fine film too, eh? Seems to me though the joke was on you that time. And if you take my advice you’ll put a kedge anchor on that wife of yours and heave the cable short afore she goes adrift and fouls some craft aside from decent men.”
"Thanks, guess I will," he laughed. "But I expect she'll part the cable or drag anchor just the same. Takes a hard-weather helm, captain. Some little craft to keep on her course, I'll tell the world."
"You're horrid, Tom!" cried the girl.
"I've half a mind to stay right here with Captain Ned."
"Not if I know it, ma'am!" I declared. "You're going along of that gunman hubby of yours where you belong. This bark's no movie set."
As the launch went bobbing back to the yacht, Thomson spat reflectively into the sea.
"And some little liar, I'll tell the world," he remarked as if to himself. "She sure got my goat. Darned if there's any understanding women. By Judas! Married—and to that little runt! Well, there's no accounting for tastes, as the old woman said when she kissed the cow. But never again for me!"
I reached over and grasped his hand. "Same here!" I said fervently. "But, thank Heaven, we're both out of the fog at last!"
"Amen!" echoed Frank.