HotFreeBooks.com
All the Brothers Were Valiant
by Ben Ames Williams
1  2     Next Part
Home - Random Browse

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT

* * * * * *

The MacMillan Company

New York . Boston . Chicago . Dallas Atlanta . San Francisco

MacMillan & Co., Limited

London . Bombay . Calcutta Melbourne

The MacMillan Co. of Canada, Ltd. Toronto

* * * * * *

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT

by

BEN AMES WILLIAMS



New York The MacMillan Company 1919

All rights reserved

Copyright, 1919, by The Ridgway Company

Copyright, 1919 by The MacMillan Company

Set up and electrotyped. Published, May, 1919

ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT



ALL THE BROTHERS WERE VALIANT

I

The fine old house stood on Jumping Tom Hill, above the town. It had stood there before there was a town, when only a cabin or two fringed the woods below, nearer the shore. The weather boarding had been brought in ships from England, ready sawed; likewise the bricks of the chimney. Indians used to come to the house in the cold of winter, begging shelter. Given blankets, and food, and drink, they slept upon the kitchen floor; and when Joel Shore's great-great-grandfather came down in the morning, he found Indians and blankets gone together. Sometimes the Indians came back with a venison haunch, or a bear steak ... sometimes not at all.

The house had, now, the air of disuse which old New England houses often have. It was in perfect repair; its paint was white, and its shutters hung squarely at the windows. But the grass was uncut in the yard, and the lack of a veranda, and the tight-closed doors and windows, made the house seem lifeless and lacking the savor of human presence. There was a white-painted picket fence around the yard; and a rambler rose draped these pickets. The buds on the rose were bursting into crimson flower.

The house was four-square, plain, and without any ornamentation. It was built about a great, square chimney that was like a spine. There were six flues in this chimney, and a pot atop each flue. These little chimney pots breaking the severe outlines of the house, gave the only suggestion of lightness or frivolity about it. They were like the heads of impish children, peeping over a fence....

Across the front of this house, on the second floor, ran a single, long room like a corridor. Its windows looked down, across the town, to the Harbor. A glass hung in brackets on the wall; there was a hog-yoke in its case upon a little table, and a ship's chronometer, and a compass.... There were charts in a tin tube upon the wall, and one that showed the Harbor and the channel to the sea hung between the middle windows. In the north corner, a harpoon, and two lances, and a boat spade leaned. Their blades were covered with wooden sheaths, painted gray. A fifteen-foot jawbone, cleaned and polished and with every curving tooth in place, hung upon the rear wall and gleamed like old and yellow ivory. The chair at the table was fashioned of whalebone; and on a bracket above the table rested the model of a whaling ship, not more than eighteen inches long, fashioned of sperm ivory and perfect in every detail. Even the tiny harpoons in the boats that hung along the rail were tipped with bits of steel....

The windows of this place were tight closed; nevertheless, the room was filled with the harsh, strong smell of the sea.

Joel Shore sat in the whalebone chair, at the table, reading a book. The book was the Log of the House of Shore. Joel's father had begun it, when Joel and his four brothers were ranging from babyhood through youth.... A full half of the book was filled with entries in old Matthew Shore's small, cramped hand. The last of these entries was very short. It began with a date, and it read:

"Wind began light, from the south. This day came into Harbor the bark Winona, after a cruise of three years, two months, and four days. Captain Chase reported that my eldest son, Matthew Shore, was killed by the fluke of a right whale, at Christmas Island. The whale yielded seventy barrels of oil. Matthew Shore was second mate."

And below, upon a single line, like an epitaph, the words:

"'All the brothers were valiant.'"

Two days after, the old man sickened; and three weeks later, he died. He had set great store by big Matt....

Joel, turning the leaves of the Log, and scanning their brief entries, came presently to this—written in the hand of his brother John:

"Wind easterly. This day the Betty was reported lost on the Japan grounds, with all hands save the boy and the cook. Noah Shore was third mate. Day ended as it began."

And below, again, that single line:

"'All the brothers were valiant.'"

There followed many pages filled with reports of rich cruises, when ships came home with bursting casks, and the brothers of the House of Shore played the parts of men. The entries were now in the hand of one, now of another; John and Mark and Joel.... Joel read phrases here and there....

"This day the Martin Wilkes returned ... two years, eleven months and twenty-two days ... died on the cruise, and first mate John Shore became captain. Day ended as it began."

And, a page or two further on:

"... Martin Wilkes ... two years, two months, four days ... tubs on deck filled with oil, for which there was no more room in the casks ... Captain John Shore."

Mark Shore's first entry in the Log stood out from the others; for Mark's hand was bold, and strong, and the letters sprawled blackly along the lines. Furthermore, Mark used the personal pronoun, while the other brothers wrote always in the third person. Mark had written:

"This day, I, Mark Shore, at the age of twenty-seven, was given command of the whaling bark Nathan Ross."

Joel read this sentence thrice. There was a bold pride in it, and a strong and reckless note which seemed to bring his brother before his very eyes. Mark had always been so, swift of tongue, and strong, and sure. Joel turned another page, came to where Mark had written:

"This day I returned from my first cruise with full casks in two years, seven months, fifteen days. I found the Martin Wilkes in the dock. They report Captain John Shore lost at Vau Vau in an effort to save the ship's boy, who had fallen overboard. The boy was also lost."

And, below, in bold and defiant letters:

"'All the brothers were valiant.'"

There were two more pages of entries, in Mark's hand or in Joel's, before the end. When he came to the fresh page, Joel dipped his pen, and huddled his broad shoulders over the book, and slowly wrote that which had to be written.

"Wind northeast, light," he began, according to the ancient form of the sea, which makes the state of wind and weather of first and foremost import. "Wind northeast, light. This day the Martin Wilkes finished a three year cruise. Found in port the Nathan Ross. She reports that Captain Mark Shore left the ship when she watered at the Gilbert Islands. He did not return, and could not be found. They searched three weeks. They encountered hostile islanders. No trace of Mark Shore."

When he had written thus far, he read the record to himself, his lips moving; then he sat for a space with frowning brows, thinking, thinking, wondering if there were a chance....

But in the end he cast the hope aside. If Mark lived, they would have found him, would surely have found him....

And so Joel wrote the ancient line:

"'All the brothers were valiant.'"

And below, as an afterthought, he added: "Joel Shore became first mate of the Martin Wilkes on her cruise."

He blotted this line, and closed the book, and put it away. Then he went to the windows that looked down upon the Harbor, and stood there for a long time. His face was serene, but his eyes were faintly troubled. He did not see the things that lay outspread below him.

Yet they were worth seeing. The town was old, and it had the fragrance of age about it.

Below Joel, on the hill's slopes, among the trees, stood the square white houses of the town folk. Beyond them, the white spire of the church with its weather vane atop. Joel marked that the wind was still northeast. The vane swung fitfully in the light air. He could see the masts and yards of the ships along the waterfront. The yards of the Nathan Ross were canted in mournful tribute to his brother. At the pier end beside her, he marked the ranks of casks, brown with sweating oil. Beyond, the smooth water ruffled in the wind, and dark ripple-shadows moved across its surface with each breeze. There were gulls in the air, and on the water. Such stillness lay upon the sleepy town that if his windows had been open, he might have heard the harsh cries of the birds. A man was sculling shoreward from a fishing schooner that lay at anchor off the docks; and a whaleboat crawled like a spider across the harbor toward Fairhaven on the other side.

On a flag staff above a big building near the water, a half-masted flag hung idly in the faintly stirring air. It hung there, he knew, for his brother's sake. He watched it thoughtfully, wondering.... There had been such an abounding insolence of life in big Mark Shore.... It was hard to believe that he was surely dead.

A woman passed along the street below the house, and looked up and saw him at the window. He did not see her. Two boys crawled along the white picket fence, and pricked their fingers as they broke half-open clusters from the rambler without molestation. A gray squirrel, when the boys had gone, came down from an elm across the street and sprinted desperately to the foot of the great oak below the house. When it was safe in the oak's upper branches, it scolded derisively at the imaginary terrors it had escaped. A blue jay, with ruffled feathers—a huge, blue ball in the air—rocketed across from the elm, and established himself near the squirrel, and they swore at each other like coachmen. The squirrel swore from temper and disposition; the jay from malice and derision. The bird seemed to have the better of the argument, for the squirrel suddenly fell silent and departed, his emotions revealing themselves only in the angry flicks of his tail. When he was gone, the jay began to investigate a knot in a limb of the oak. The bird climbed around this knot with slow motions curiously like those of a parrot.

A half-grown boy came up the street and turned in at the gate. Joel remained where he was until the boy manipulated the knocker on the door; then he went down and opened. He knew the boy; Peter How. Peter was thin and freckled and nervous; and he was inclined to stammer. When Joel opened the door, Peter was at first unable to speak. He stood on the step, jerking his chin upward and forward as though his collar irked him. Joel smiled slowly.

"Come in, Peter," he said.

Peter jerked his chin, jerked his whole head furiously. "C—C—C—" he said. "Asa W-W-Worthen wants to s-s-see you."

Asa Worthen was the owner of the Martin Wilkes, and of the Nathan Ross. Joel nodded gently.

"Thank you, Peter," he told the boy. "I'll get my hat and come."

Peter jerked his head. He seemed to be choking. "He's a-a-a-a-at his office," he blurted.

Joel had found his hat. He closed the door of the house behind him, and he and Peter went down the shady street together.



II

Asa Worthen was a small, lean, strong old man, immensely voluble. He must have been well over sixty years old; and he had grown rich by harvesting the living treasures of the sea. At thirty-four, he owned his first ship. She was old, and cranky, and no more seaworthy than a log; but she earned him more than four hundred thousand dollars, net, before he beached her on the sand below the town. She lay there still, her upper parts strong and well preserved. But her bottom was gone, and she was slowly rotting into the sand.

Asa himself had captained this old craft, until she had served her appointed time; but when she went to the sand flats, he, too, stayed ashore, to watch his ships come in. When they were in harbor, they berthed in his own dock; and from his office at the shoreward end of the pier, he could look down upon their decks, and watch the casks come out, so fat with oil, and the stores go aboard for each cruise. The cries of the men and the wheeling gulls, the rattle of the blocks and gear, and the rich smell of the oil came up to him.... The Nathan Ross was loading now; and when Joel climbed the office stairs, he found the old man at the window watching them sling great shooks of staves into her hold, and fidgeting at the lubberliness of the men who did the work.

Asa's office was worth seeing; a strange, huge room, windowed on three sides; against one wall, a whaleboat with all her gear in place; in a corner, the twisted jaw of a sixty-barrel bull, killed in the Seychelles; and Asa Worthen's big desk, with a six-foot model of his old ship atop it, between the forward windows. Beside the desk stood that contrivance known to the whalemen as a "woman's tub"; a cask, sawed chair-fashion, with a cross board for seat, and ropes so rigged that the whole might be easily and safely swung from ship to small boat or back again. Asa had taken his wife along on more than one of his early voyages ... before she died....

At Joel's step, the little man swung awkwardly away from the window, toward the door. Many years ago, a racing whale line had snarled his left leg and whipped away a gout of muscle; and this leg was now shorter than its fellow, so that Asa walked with a pegging limp. He hitched across the big room, and took Joel's arm, and led the young man to the desk.

"Sit down, Joel. Sit down," he said briskly. "I've words to say to you, my son. Sit down." Asa was smoking; and Joel took a twist of leaf from his pocket, and cut three slices, and crumbled them and stuffed them into the bowl of his black pipe. Asa watched the process, and he watched Joel, puffing without comment. There was something furtive in the scrutiny of the young man, but Joel did not mark it. When the pipe was ready, Asa passed across a match, and Joel struck it, and puffed slowly....

Asa began, abruptly, what he had to say. "Joel, the Nathan Ross will be ready for sea in five days. She's stout, her timbers are good and her tackle is strong. She's a lucky ship. The oil swims after her across the broad sea, and begs to be taken. She's my pet ship, Joel, as you know; and she's uncommon well fitted. Mark had her. Now I want you to take her."

Joel's calm eyes had met the other's while Asa was speaking; and Asa had shifted to avoid the encounter. But Joel's heart was pounding so, at the words of the older man, that he took no heed. He listened, and he waited thoughtfully until he was sure of what he wished to say. Then he asked quietly:

"Is not James Finch the mate of her? Did he not fetch her home?"

"Aye," said Asa impatiently. "He brought her home—in the top scurry of haste. There was no need of such haste; for he had still casks unfilled, and there was sparm all about him where he lay. He should have filled those last casks. 'Tis in them the profit lies." He shook his head sorrowfully. "No, Jim Finch will not do. He is a good man—under another man. But he has not the spine that stands alone. When Mark Shore was gone ... Jim had no thought but to throw the try works overside and scurry hitherward as though he feared to be out upon the seas alone."

Joel puffed thrice at his pipe. Then: "You said this morning that for three weeks he hunted Mark, up and down the Gilbert Islands."

Asa's little eyes whipped toward Joel, and away again. "Oh, aye," he said harshly. "Three weeks he hunted, when one was plenty. If Mark Shore lived, and wished to find his ship again, he'd have found her in a week. If he were dead ... there was no need of the time wasted."

"Nevertheless," said Joel quietly, "James Finch has my thanks for his search; and I'm no mind to do him a harm, or to step into his shoes."

Asa smiled grimly. "Ye're over considerate," he said. "Jim Finch was your brother's man, and a very loyal one. As long as he is another's man, he is content. But he has no want to be his own master and the master of a ship, and of men. I've askit him."

Joel puffed hard at his pipe; and after a little he asked: "Sir, what think you it was that came to Mark?"

Asa looked at him sharply, then away; and his accustomed volubility fell away from him. He lifted his hands. "Ask James Finch. I've no way to tell," he said curtly.

"Have you no opinion?" Joel insisted.

The ship owner tilted his head, set finger tip to finger tip, assumed the air of one who delivers judgment. "Islanders, 'tis like," he said. "There's a many there." He looked sidewise at Joel, looked away. Joel was nodding.

"Yes, many thereabouts," he agreed. "But there would have been tracks. Were there none?"

"Mark left his boat's crew," said Asa. "Walked away along the shore. That was all."

"No tracks?"

"They saw where he'd left the sand." The ship owner shifted in his chair. "Seems like I'd heard you and Mark wa'n't too good friends, Joel. Your a'mighty worked up."

Joel looked at the little man with bleak eyes. "He was my brother."

"I've heard tell he forgot you was his, sometimes."

Joel paid no heed. "You think it was Islanders?"

Asa kicked the corner of his desk, watching his foot. "What else was there?"

"I've nothing in my mind," said Joel, and shook his head. "But it sticks in me that Mark was no man to die easy. There was a full measure of life in him."

Asa got up awkwardly, waved his hand. "We're off the course, Joel. What about the Nathan Ross? Ready for sea, come Tuesday. I'm not one to press her on any man, unwilling. Say your say, man. Do you take her? Or no?"

Joel drew slowly once more upon his pipe. "If I take her," he said, "we'll work the Gilberts first of all, and try once again for a sign of my brother Mark."

Asa jerked his head. "So you pick up any oil that comes your way, I've no objection," he agreed. "Matter of fact, that's the best thing to do. Mark may yet live." His eyes snapped up to the others. "You take her, then?"

Joel nodded slowly. "I take her, sir," he said. "With thanks to you."

Asa banged his hand jubilantly on his desk. "That's done. Now ..."

The two men sat down at Asa's big desk again; and for an hour they were busy with matters that concerned the coming cruise. When a whaleship goes to sea, she goes for a three-year cruise; and save only the items of food and water, she carries with her everything she will need for that whole time, with an ample allowance to spare. She is a department store of the seas; for she works with iron and wood, with steel and bone, with fire and water and rope and sail. All these things she must have, and many more. And the lists of a whaleship's stores are long and long, and take much checking. When they had considered these matters, Asa sent out to the pierhead to summon Jim Finch, and told the man that Joel would have the ship. Joel said to Finch slowly: "I've no mind to fight a grudge aboard my ship, sir. If you blame me for stepping into your shoes, Mr. Worthen will give you another berth."

Finch shook his head. He was a big, laughing man with soft, fat cheeks. "No, sir," he declared. "It's yours, and welcome. Your brother was a man; and you've the look of another, sir."

Joel frowned. He was uncomfortable; he had an angry feeling that Finch was too amiable. But he said no more, and Finch went back to the ship, and Asa and Joel continued with their task.

While they worked, the afternoon sun drifted down the western sky till its level rays were flame lances laid across the harbor. A fishing craft at anchor in mid-stream hoisted her sails with a creak and rattle of blocks and drifted down the channel with the tide. The wheeling gulls dropped, one by one, to the water; or they lurched off to some quiet cove to spend the night. Their harsh cries came less frequently, were less persistent. The wind had swung around, and it was fetching now from the water a cold and salty chill. There was a smell of cooking in the air, and the smoke from the Nathan Ross' galley, and the cool smell of the sea mingled with the strong odor of the oil in the casks ranked at the end of the pier.

The sun had touched the horizon when Joel at last rose to go. Asa got up with him, dropped a hand on the young man's shoulder. They passed the contrivance called a "woman's tub"; and Asa, at sight of it, seemed to be minded of something. He stopped, and checked Joel, and with eyes twinkling, pointed to the tub. "Will you be wishful to take that on the cruise, Joel?" he asked, and looked up sidewise at the younger man, and chuckled.

Joel's brown cheeks were covered with slow fire; but his voice was steady enough when he replied. "It's a kind offer, sir," he said. "I know well what store you set by that tub."

"Will you be wanting it?" Asa still insisted.

"I'll see," said Joel quietly. "I will see."



III

The brothers of the House of Shore had been, on the whole, slow to take to themselves wives. Matt had never married, nor Noah, nor Mark. John had a wife for the weeks he was at home before his last cruise; but he did not take her with him on that voyage, and there was no John Shore to carry on the name.

John Shore's widow was called Rachel. She had been Rachel Holt; and her sister's name was Priscilla. Rachel was one of those women who suggest slumbering fires; she was slow of speech, and quiet, and calm.... But John Shore and Mark had both loved her; and when she married John, Mark laughed a hard and reckless laugh that made the woman afraid. John and Mark never spoke, one to another, after that marriage.

Rachel's sister, Priscilla, was a gay and careless child. She was six years younger than Joel, and she had acquired in babyhood the habit of thinking Joel the most wonderful created thing. Their yards adjoined; and she was the baby of her family, and he of his. Thus the big boy and the little girl had always been comrades and allies against the world. Before Joel first went to sea, as ship's boy, the two had decided they would some day be married....

Joel went to supper that night at Priscilla's home. He was alone in his own house; and Mrs. Holt was a person with a mother's heart. Rachel lived at home. She gave Joel quiet welcome at the door, before Priscilla in the kitchen heard his voice and came flying to overwhelm him. She had been making popovers, and there was flour on her fingers—and on Joel's best black coat, when she was done with him. Rachel brushed it off, when Priss had run back to her oven.

They sat down at table. Mrs. Holt at one end, her husband—he was a big man, an old sea captain, and full of yarns as a knitting bag—at the other; and Rachel at one side, facing Priss and Joel. Joel's ship had come in only that day; the Nathan Ross had been in port for weeks. So the whole town knew Mark Shore's story. They spoke of it now, and Joel told them what he knew.... Rachel wondered if there was any chance that Mark might still be alive. Her father broke in with a story of Mark's first cruise, when the boy had saved a man's life by his quickness with the hatchet on the racing line. The town was full of such stories; for Mark was one of those men about whom legends arise. And now he was gone....

Priscilla listened to the talk with the wide eyes of youth, awed by the mystery and majesty of tragic things. She remembered Mark as a huge man, like a pagan god, in whose eyes she had been only a thin-legged little girl who made faces through the fence.... After supper, when the others had left them in the parlor together, she said to Joel: "Do you think he's dead?" Her voice was a whisper.

"I aim to know," said Joel.

Rachel looked in at the door. "You needn't bother with the dishes, Priss," she said. "I'll do them."

Priscilla had forgotten all about that task. She ran contritely toward her sister. "Oh, I'm sorry, Rachel. I will, I will do them. Joel and I...."

Rachel laughed softly. "I don't mind them. You two stay here."

Priscilla accepted the offer, in the end; but she had no notion of staying in the tight-windowed parlor, with its harsh carpet on the floor, and its samplers on the walls. She was of the new generation, the generation which discovered that the night is beautiful, and not unhealthy. "Let's go outside," she said to Joel. "There's a moon. We can sit on the bench, under the apple tree...."

They went out, side by side. Joel was not a tall man, but he was inches taller than Priscilla. She was tiny; a dainty, sweetly proportioned creature, built on fine lines that were strangely out of keeping with the stalwart stock from which she sprung. Her hair was darker than Joel's; it was a brown so dark that it was almost black. But her eyes were vividly blue, and her lips were vividly red, and her cheeks were bright.... She slipped her hand through Joel's big arm as they crossed the yard; and when they had found the seat, she drew his arm frankly about her shoulders. "I'm cold," she said, laughing up at him. "You must keep me warm...."

The moon flecked down through the leaves upon her face. There was moonlight on her cheek, and on her mouth; but her thick hair and her eyes were shadowed and mysterious. Joel saw that her lips were smiling.... She drew his head down toward hers.... Joel was flesh and blood; and she panted, and gasped, and pushed him away, and smoothed her hair, and laughed at him. "I love you to be so strong," she whispered, happily.

He had not told them, at supper, of his promotion. He told Priscilla now; and the girl could not sit still beside him. She danced in the path before the seat; she perched on his knee, and caught his big shoulders in her tiny hands and tried to shake him back and forth in her delight. "You don't act a bit excited," she scolded. "You don't act as though you were glad, a bit. Aren't you glad, Joe? Aren't you just so proud?..."

"Yes," he told her. "Of course. Yes. Yes, I am glad, and I am proud."

"Oh," she cried, "I could—I could just hug you in two." She tried it, tightening her arms about his big neck, clinging to him.... He sat stiff and awkward under her caresses, thrilling with a happiness that he did not know how to express. He felt uneasy, half embarrassed. Her ecstasy continued....

Then, abruptly, it passed. She became practical. Still upon his knee, she began to ask questions. When would he sail away? She had heard the Nathan Ross was almost ready. When would he come back? When would he be rich, so that they might be married? Would it be long?...

Joel found tongue. "We will be married Monday," he said slowly. "We will go away—on the Nathan Ross—together. I do not want to go alone."

She slipped from his knee, stood before him. "Why, Joel! You're—you're just crazy to think of it."

He shook his head. "No," he said. "No, I have thought all about it. It is the best thing to do. We will be married Monday; and we will make a bigger cabin on the—Nathan Ross...." His voice always slowed a little as he spoke the name of his first ship. "You will be happy on her," he said. "You will like it all.... The sea...."

She returned to his knee, tumbling his hair. "You silly! Men don't understand. Why, I couldn't be ready for ever so long. And I wouldn't dare go away with you. For so awfully long. I just couldn't...." Her eyes misted with thought, and she said quite seriously: "Why, Joel, we might find we didn't like each other at all. But we'd be on the ship, with no way to get away from it ... for three years. Don't you see?"

Joel said calmly: "That is not so; because we know about—liking each other, already. I know how it is with you. It is clothes that you are thinking about. Well, you can get them in the stores. And you have many, already. You have new dresses whenever I see you...."

She laughed gayly. "But, Joel, you only see me once in three years. Of course I have new dresses, then. But I just couldn't...."

She laughed again, a faint uneasiness in her laughter. She left his knee, and sat down soberly beside him. She was feeling a little crushed, smothered ... as though she were being pushed back against a wall. Joel said steadily:

"Mr. Worthen will be glad to know you go with me. And every one will be glad for you...."

She burst, abruptly, into tears. She was miserable, she told him. He was making her miserable. She hated to be bullied, and he was trying to bully her. She hated him. She wouldn't marry him. Never. He could go off on his old ship and never come back. That was all. She would not go; and he ought not to ask her to, anyway. To prove how much she hated him, she nestled against his side, and his arm enfolded her.

Joel had not the outward seeming of a wise man; nevertheless he now said:

"The other girls will all be envying you. To be married so quickly, and carried away the very next day...." Her sobs miraculously ceased, and he smiled quietly down upon her dark head against his breast. "Every one will do things for you.... The whole town.... They will come down to see us sail away."

He fell silent, leaving his words for her consideration. She remained very quiet against his side for a long time, breathing very softly. He thought he could almost read her thoughts....

"It will be," he said, "like a story. Like a romance." And the word sounded strangely on his sober lips.

But at the word, the girl sat up quickly, both hands gripping his arm. He could see her eyes dancing in the moonlight.... "Oh, Joe," she cried, "it would really be just loads of fun. And terribly romantic.... Wonderful!" She pressed a hand to her cheek, thinking: "And I could...."

She could, she said, do thus and so....

Joel listened, and he smiled. For he knew that his bride would sail away with him.



IV

In the few days that remained before the Nathan Ross was to sail, there was no time for remodeling her cabin to accommodate Priscilla; so that was left for the first weeks of the cruise. There were matters enough, without it, to occupy those last days. Little Priss was caught up like a leaf in the wind; she was whirled this way and that in a pleasant and heart-stirring confusion. And through it all, her laughter rang in the air like the sound of bells. To Joel, Sunday night, she said: "Oh, Joe ... it's been an awful rush. But it's been such fun.... And I never was so happy in my life."

And Joel smiled, and said quietly: "Yes—with happier times to come."

She looked up at him wistfully. "You'll be good to me, won't you, Joel?" He patted her shoulder.

They were married in the big old white church, and every pew was filled. Afterwards they all went down to the piers, where Asa Worthen had spread long tables and loaded them so that they groaned. Alongside lay the Nathan Ross, her decks littered with the last confusion of preparation. Joel showed Priscilla the lumber for the cabin alterations, ranked along the rail beneath the boathouse; and she gripped his arm tight with both hands. Afterwards, he took Priscilla up the hill to the great House of Shore. Rachel had prepared their wedding supper there....

At a quarter before ten o'clock the next morning, the Nathan Ross went out with the tide. When she had cleared the dock and was fairly in the stream, Joel gave her in charge of Jim Finch; and he and Priscilla stood in the after house, astern, and looked back at the throng upon the pier until the individual figures merged into a black mass, pepper-and-salted with color where the women stood. They could see the handkerchiefs flickering, until a turn of the channel swept them out of sight of the town, and they drifted on through the widening mouth of the bay, toward the open sea. At dusk that night, there was still land in sight behind them and on either side; but when Priscilla came on deck in the morning, there was nothing but blue water and laughing waves. And so she was homesick, all that day, and laughed not at all till the evening, when the moon bathed the ship in silver fire, and the white-caps danced all about them.

The Nathan Ross was in no sense a lovely ship. There was about her none of the poetry of the seas. She was designed strictly for utility, and for hard and dirty toil. Blunt she was of bow and stern, and her widest point was just abeam the foremast, so that she had great shoulders that buffeted the sea. These shoulders bent inward toward the prow and met in what was practically a right angle; and her stern was cut almost straight across, with only enough overhang to give the rudder room. Furthermore, her masts had no rake. They stood up stiff and straight as sore thumbs; and the bowsprit, instead of being something near horizontal, rose toward the skies at an angle close to forty-five degrees. This bowsprit made the Nathan Ross look as though she had just stubbed her toe. She carried four boats at the davits; and two spare craft, bottom up, on the boathouse just forward of the mizzenmast. Three of the four at the davits were on the starboard side, and since they were each thirty feet long, while the ship herself was scarce a hundred and twenty, they gave her a sadly cluttered and overloaded appearance. For the rest, she was painted black, with a white checkerboarding around the rail; and her sails were smeared and smutty with smoke from burning blubber scraps.

Nevertheless, she was a comfortable ship, and a dry one. She rode waves that would have swept a vessel cut on prouder lines; and she was moderately steady. She was not fast, nor cared to be. An easy five or six knots contented her; for the whole ocean was her hunting ground, and though there were certain more favored areas, you might meet whales anywhere. Give her time, and she would poke that blunt nose of hers right 'round the world, and come back with a net profit anywhere up to a hundred and fifty thousand dollars in her sweating casks.

Priscilla Holt knew all these things, and she respected the Nathan Ross on their account. But during the first weeks of the cruise, she was too much interested in the work on the cabin to consider other matters. Old Aaron Burnham, the carpenter, did the work. He was a wiry little man, gray and grizzled; and he loved the tools of his craft with a jealous love that forbade the laying on of impious hands. Through the long, calm days, when the ship snored like a sleep-walker through the empty seas, Priscilla would sit on box or bench or floor, and watch Aaron at his task, and ask him questions, and listen to the old man's long stories of things that had come and gone.

Sometimes she tried to help him; but he would not let her handle an edged tool. "Ye'll no have the eye for it," he would say. "Leave it be." Now and then he let her try to drive a nail; but as often as not she missed the nail head and marred the soft wood, until Aaron lost patience with her. "Mark you," he cried, "men will see the scar there, and they'll be thinking I did this task with my foot, Ma'am."

And Priscilla would laugh at him, and curl up with her feet tucked under her skirts and her chin in her hands, and watch him by the long hour on hour.

The task dragged on; it seemed to her endless. For Aaron had other work that must be done, and he could give only his spare time to this. Also, he was a slow worker, accustomed to take his own time; and when Priscilla grew impatient and scolded him, the old man merely sat back on his knees, and scratched his head, and tapped thoughtfully with his hammer on the floor beside him.

"We-ell, Ma'am," he said, "I do things so, and I do things so; and it takes time, that does, Ma'am."

Now and then, through those days, Priscilla's enthusiasm would send her skittering up the companion to fetch Joel to see some new wonder—a window set in the stern, or a bench completed, or a door hung. And Joel, looking far oftener at Priscilla than at the object she wished him to consider, would chuckle, and touch her shoulder affectionately, and go back to his post.

In the sixth week, the last nail had been driven, and the last lick of paint was dry. In the result, Priscilla was as happy as a bride has a right to be.

Across the very stern of the ship, with windows looking out upon the wake, ran what might have been called a sitting room. It was perhaps twenty feet wide and eight feet deep; and its rear wall—formed by the overhanging stern—sloped outward toward the ceiling. Against this slope, beneath the three windows, a broad, cushioned bench was built, to serve as couch or seat. The bench was broken in one place to make room for Joel's desk, and the cabinet wherein he kept his records and his instruments. Priss had put curtains on the windows; and she had a lily, in a pot, at one of them, and a clump of pansies at another. Joel's cabin opened off this compartment, on the starboard side; hers was opposite. The main cabin, with its folding table built about the thick butt of the mizzenmast, had been extended forward to make room for the enlargement of this stern apartment; and the mates were quartered off this main cabin. The galley and the store rooms were on the main deck, in the after house, on either side of the awkward "walking wheel" by which the ship was steered; and the cabin companion was just forward of this wheel.

There were aboard the Nathan Ross about thirty men, all told; but the most of them were not of Priscilla's world. The foremast hands never came aft of the try works, save on tasks assigned; and the secondary officers—boat-steerers and the like—slept in the steerage and kept forward of the boathouse. Thus the after deck was shared only by Priscilla and Joel, the mates, the cook, and old Aaron, who was a man of many privileges.

This world, Priscilla ruled. Joel adored her; Jim Finch gave her the clumsy homage of a puppy—and was at times just as oppressively amiable. Old Aaron talked to her by the hour, while he went about his work. And the other mates—Varde, the sullen; and Hooper, who was old and losing his grip; and Dick Morrell, who was young and finding his—paid her the respect that was her due. Young Morrell—he was not even as old as she was—helped her on her first climb to the mast head. He was only a boy.... The girl, when the first homesick pangs were past, was happy.

Until the day they killed their whale, a seventy-barrel cachalot cow who died as peaceably as a chicken, with only a convulsive flop or two when the lances found the life. Priscilla took a single glimpse of the shuddering, bloody, oily work of cutting in the carcass, and then she fled to her cabin and remained there steadfastly until the long task was done. The smoke from the bubbling try pots, and the persistent smell of boiling blubber sickened her; and the grime that descended over everything appalled her dainty soul. Not until the men had cleaned ship did she go on deck again; and even then she scolded Joel for the affair as though it were a matter for which he was wholly to blame.

"There just isn't any sense in making so much dirt," she told him. "I've had to wash out every one of my curtains; and I can't ever get rid of that smell."

Joel chuckled. "Aye, the smell sticks," he agreed. "But you'll be used to it soon, Priss. You'll come to like it, I'm thinking. Any case, we'll not be rid of it while the cruise is on."

She was so angry that she wanted to cry. "Do you actually mean, Joel Shore, that I've got to live with that sickening, hot-oil smell for th-three years?"

He nodded slowly. "Yes, Priss. No way out of it. It's part of the work. Come another month, and you'll not mind at all."

She said positively: "I may not say anything, but I shall always hate that smell."

His eyes twinkled slowly; and she stamped her foot. "If I'd known it was going to be like this, I wouldn't have come, Joel. Now don't you laugh at me. If there was any way to go back, I'd go. I hate it. I hate it all. You ought not to have brought me...."

They were on the broad bench across the stern, in their cabin; and he put his big arm about her shoulders and laughed at her till she could do no less than laugh back at him. But—she assured herself of this—she was angry, just the same. Nevertheless, she laughed....

Joel had put the Nathan Ross on the most direct southward course, touching neither Azores nor Cape Verdes. For it was in his mind, as he had told Asa Worthen, to make direct for the Gilbert Islands and seek some trace of his brother there. That had been his plan before he left port; but the plan had become determination after a word with Aaron Burnham, one day. Joel, resting in the cabin while old Aaron worked there, fell to thinking of his brother, and so asked:

"Aaron, what is your belief about my brother, Mark Shore? Is he dead?"

Aaron was building, that day, the forward partition of the new cabin, fitting his boards meticulously, and driving home each nail with hammer strokes that seemed smooth and effortless, yet sank the nail to the head in an instant. He looked up over his shoulder at Joel, between nails.

"Dead, d'ye say?" he countered quizzically.

Joel nodded. "The Islanders? Did they do it, do you believe?"

Old Aaron chuckled asthmatically. He had lost a fore tooth, and the effect of his mirth was not reassuring. "There's a brew i' the Islands," he said. "More like 'twas the island brew nor the island men."

Joel, for a moment, sat very still and considered. He knew Mark Shore had never scrupled to take strong drink when he chose; but Mark had always been a strong man to match his drink, and conquer it. Said Joel, therefore, after a space of thought:

"Why do you think that, Aaron? Drink was never like to carry Mark away."

Aaron squinted up at him. "Have ye sampled that island brew? 'Tis made of pineapples, or sago, or the like outlandish stuff, I've heard. And one sip is deviltry, and two is madness, and three is corruption. Some stomachs are used to it; they can handle it. But a raw man...."

There was significance in the pause, and the unfinished sentence. Joel considered the matter. There had always been, between him and Mark, something of that sleeping enmity that so often arises between brothers. Mark was a man swift of tongue, flashing, and full of laughter and hot blood; a colorful man, like a splash of pigment on white canvas. Joel was in all things his opposite, quiet, and slow of thought and speech, and steady of gait. Mark was accustomed to jeer at him, to taunt him; and Joel, in the slow fashion of slow men, had resented this. Nevertheless, he cast aside prejudice now in his estimate of the situation; and he asked old Aaron:

"Do you know there were Islanders about? Or this wild brew you speak of?"

Aaron drove home a nail, and with his punch set it flush with the soft wood. "There was some drunken crew, shouting and screeching a mile up the beach," he said. "Some few of them came off to us with fruit. The sober ones. 'Twas them Mark Shore went to pandander with."

"He went to them?" Joel echoed. Aaron nodded.

"Aye. That he did."

There was a long moment of silence before Joel asked huskily: "But was it like that he should stay with them freely?" For it is a black and shameful thing that a captain should desert his ship. When he had asked the question, he waited in something like fear for the carpenter's answer.

"It comes to me," said Aaron slowly at last, "that you did not well know your brother. Ye'd only seen him ashore. And—I'm doubting that you knew all the circumstances of his departure from this ship."

"I know that he went ashore," said Joel. "Went ashore, and left his men, and departed; and I know that they searched for him three weeks without a sign."

Aaron sat back on his heels, and rubbed the smooth head of his hammer thoughtfully against his dry old cheek. "I'm not one to speak harm," he said. "And I've said naught, in the town. But—you have some right to know that Mark Shore was not a sober man when he left the ship. I' truth, he had not been sober—cold sober—for a week. And he left with a bottle in his coat." He nodded his gray old head, eyes not on Joel, but on the hammer in his hand. "Also, there was a pearling schooner in the lagoon, with drunk white men aboard."

He glanced sidewise at Joel then, and saw the Captain's cheek bones slowly whiten. Whereupon old Aaron bent swiftly to his task, half fearful of what he had said. But when Joel spoke, it was only to say quietly:

"Asa should have told me this."

Aaron shook his head vehemently, but without looking up from his task. "Not so," he said. "There was no need the town should chew Mark's name. Better—" He glanced at Joel. "Better if he were thought dead. Asa's a good man, you mind. And—he knew your father."

Joel nodded at that. "Asa meant wisest, I've no doubt," he agreed. "But—Mark would do nothing that he was shamed of."

"Mark Shore," said Aaron thoughtfully, "did many things without shame for which other men would have blushit."

Joel said curtly: "Aaron, ye'll say no more such things as that."

"Ye're right," Aaron agreed. "I should no have said it. But—'tis so."

Joel left him and went on deck, and his eyes were troubled.... Priss was there, with Dick Morrell showing her some trick of the wheel, and they were laughing together like children. Joel felt immensely older than Priss.... Yet the difference was scarce six years.... She saw him, and left Morrell and came running to Joel's side. "Did you sleep?" she asked. "You needed rest, Joe."

"I rested," he told her, smiling faintly. "I'll be fine...."



V

They drifted past Pernambuco, and touched at Trinidad, and so worked south and somewhat westward for Cape Horn. And in Joel grew, stronger and ever, the resolve to hunt out Mark, and find him, and fetch him home.... The blood tie was strong on Joel; stronger than any memory of Mark's derision. And—for the honor of the House of Shore, it were well to prove the matter, if Mark were dead. It is not well for a Shore to abandon his ship in strange seas.

He asked Aaron, two weeks after their first talk, whether they had questioned the white men on the pearling schooner.

"Oh, aye," said Aaron cheerfully. "I sought 'em out, myself. Three of them, they was; and ill-favored. A slinky small man, and a rat-eyed large man, and a fat man in between; all unshaven, and filthy, and drunken as owls. They'd seen naught of Mark Shore, they said. I'm thinking he'd let them see but little of him. He had no tenderness for dirt."

Joel told Priss nothing of what he hoped and feared; nor did he question Jim Finch in the matter. Finch was a good man at set tasks, but he was too amiable, and he had no clamp upon his lips.... Joel did not wish the word to go abroad among the men. He was glad that most of the crew were new since last voyage; but the officers were unchanged, save that he stood in his brother's shoes.

They left Trinidad behind them, and shouldered their way southward, the blunt bow of the Nathan Ross battering the seas. And they came to the Straits, and worked in, and made their westing day by day, while little Priss, wide-eyed on the deck, watched the gaunt cliffs past whose wave-gnawed feet they stole. And so at last the Pacific opened out before them, and they caught the winds, and worked toward Easter Island.

But their progress was slow. To men unschooled in the patience of the whaling trade, it would have been insufferably slow. For they struck fish; and day after day they hung idle on the waves while the trypots boiled; and day after day they loitered on good whaling grounds, when the boats were out thrice and four times between sun's rise and set. If Joel was impatient, he gave no sign. If his desires would have made him hasten on, his duty held him here, where rich catches waited for the taking; and while there were fish to be taken, he would not leave them behind.

Priscilla hated it. She hated the grime, and the smoke, and the smell of boiling oil; and she hated this dawdling on the open seas, with never a glimpse of land. More than once she made Joel bear the brunt of her own unrest; and because it is not always good for two people to be too much together, and because she had nothing better to do, she began to pick Joel to pieces in her thoughts, and fret at his patience and stolidity. She wished he would grow angry, wished even that he might be angry with her.... She wished for anything to break the long days of deadly calm. And she watched Joel more intently than it is well for wife to watch husband, or for husband to watch wife.

He did so many things that tried her sore. He had a fashion, when he had finished eating, of setting his hands against the table and pushing himself back from the board with slow and solid satisfaction. She came to the point where she longed to scream when he did this. When they were at table in the main cabin, she watched with such agony of trembling nerves for that movement of his that she forgot to eat, and could not relish what she ate.

Joel was a man, and his life was moving smoothly. His ship's casks were filling more swiftly than he had any right to hope; his wife was at his side; his skies were clear. He was happy, and comfortable, and well content. Sometimes, when they were preparing for sleep, at night, in the cabin at the stern, he would relax on the couch there. But she did not wish for him to put his feet upon the cushions; she said that his shoes were dirty. He offered to take off his shoes; and she shuddered....

He had a fashion of stretching and yawning comfortably as he bade her good night; and sometimes a yawn caught him in the middle of a word, and he talked while he yawned. She hated this. She was passing through that hard middle ground, that purgatory between maidenhood and wifehood in the course of which married folk find each other only human, after all. And she had not yet come to accept this condition, and to glory in it. She had always thought of Joel as a hero, a protector, a fine, stalwart, able, noble man. Now she forgot that he was commander of this ship and master of the men aboard her, and saw in him only a man who, when work was done, liked to take his ease—and who talked through his yawns.

She gnawed at this bone of discontent, in the hours when Joel was busy with his work. She was furiously resentful of Joel's flesh-and-bloodness.... And Joel, because he was too busy to be introspective, continued calmly happy and content.

The whales led them past Easter Island for a space; and then, abruptly, they were gone. Came day on day when the men at the masthead saw no misty spout against the wide blue of the sea, no glistening black body lying awash among the waves. And the Nathan Ross, with all hands scrubbing white the decks again, bent northward, working toward that maze of tiny islands which dots the wide South Seas.

Their water was getting stale, and running somewhat low; and they needed fresh foodstuffs. Joel planned to touch at the first land that offered. Tubuai, that would be. He marked their progress on the chart.

On the evening before they would reach the island, when Joel and Priss were preparing for sleep, Priss burst out furiously, like a teapot that boils over. The storm came without warning, and—so far as Joel could see—without provocation. She was sick, she said, of the endless wastes of blue. She wanted to see land. To step on it. If she were not allowed to do so very soon, she would die.

Joel, at first, was minded to tell her they would sight land in the morning; then, with one of the blundering impulses to which husbands fall victim at such moments, he decided to wait and surprise her. So, instead of telling her, he chuckled as though at some secret jest, and tried to quiet her by patting her dark head.

She fell silent at his caress; and Joel thought she was appeased. As a matter of fact, she was hating him for having laughed at her; and her calm was ferocious. He discovered this, too late....

He had just kissed her good night. She turned her cheek to his lips; and he was faintly hurt at this. But he only said cheerfully: "There, Priss.... You'll be all right in the morning...."

He yawned in mid-sentence, so that the last two or three words sounded as though he were trying to swallow a large and hot potato while he uttered them. Priss could stand no more of that. Positively. So she slapped his face.

He was amazed; and he stood, looking at her helplessly, while the slapped cheek grew red and red. Priss burst into tears, stamped her foot, called him names she did not mean, and as a climax, darted into her own cabin, and swung the door, and snapped the latch.

Joel did not in the least understand; and he went to his bunk at last, profoundly troubled.

An hour after they anchored, the next day, at Tubuai, a boat came out from shore and ran alongside, and Mark Shore swung across the rail, aboard the Nathan Ross.



VI

Joel was below, in the cabin with Priss, when his brother boarded the ship. Varde and Dick Morrell had gone ashore for water and supplies, and Priss was to go that afternoon, with Joel. She was sewing a ribbon rosette upon the hat she would wear, when she and Joel heard the sound of excited voices, and the movement of feet on the deck above their head. He left her, curled up on the cushioned bench, with the gay ribbon in her hands, and went out through the main cabin, and up the companion. He had been trying, clumsily enough, to make friends with Priss; but she was very much on her dignity that morning....

When his head rose above the level of the cabin skylight, he saw a group of men near the rail, amidships. Finch, and Hooper, and old Aaron Burnham, and two of the harpooners, all pressing close about another man.... Finch obscured this other man from Joel's view, until he climbed up on deck. Then he saw that the other man was his brother.

He went forward to join them; and it chanced that at first no one of them looked in his direction. Mark's back was half-turned; but Joel could see that his brother was lean, and bronzed by the sun. And he wore no hat, and his thick, black hair was rumpled and wild. The white shirt that he wore was open at the throat above his brown neck. His arms were bare to the elbows. His chest was like a barrel. There was a splendor of strength and vigor about the man, in the very look of him, and in his eye, and his voice, and his laughter. He seemed to shine, like the sun....

Joel, as he came near them, heard Mark laugh throatily at something Finch had said; and he heard Finch say unctuously: "Be sure, Captain Shore, every man aboard here is damned glad you've come back to us. You were missed, missed sore, sir."

Mark laughed again, at that; and he clapped Jim's fat shoulder. The action swung him around so that he saw Joel for the first time. Joel thrust out his hand.

"Mark, man! They said you were dead," he exclaimed.

Mark Shore's eyes narrowed for an instant, in a quick, appraising scrutiny of his brother. "Dead?" he laughed, jeeringly. "Do I look dead?" He stared at Joel more closely, glanced at the other men, and chuckled. "By the Lord, kid," he cried, "I believe old Asa has put you in my shoes."

Joel nodded. "He gave me command of the Nathan Ross. Yes."

Mark looked sidewise at big Jim Finch, and grinned. "Over your head, eh, Jim? Too damned bad!"

Finch grinned. "I had no wish for the place, sir. You see, I felt very sure you would be coming back to your own."

Mark tilted back his head and laughed. "You were always a very cautious man, Jim Finch. Never jumped till you were sure where you would land." He wheeled on Joel. "Well, boy—how does it feel to wear long pants?"

Joel, holding his anger in check, said slowly: "We've done well. Close on eight hundred barrel aboard."

Mark wagged his head in solemn reproof. "Joey, Joey, you've been fiddling away your time. I can see that!"

Over his brother's shoulder, Joel saw the grinning face of big Jim Finch, and his eyes hardened. He said quietly: "If that's your tone, Mark, you'll call back your boat and go ashore."

A flame surged across Mark's cheek; and he took one swift, terrible step toward his brother. But Joel did not give ground; and after a moment in which their eyes clashed like swords, Mark relaxed, and laughed and bowed low.

"I was wrong, grievously wrong, Captain Shore," he said sonorously. "I neglected the respect due your office. Your high office, sir. I thank you for reminding me of the—the proprieties, Captain." And he added, in a different tone, "Now will you not invite me aft on your ship, sir?"

Joel hesitated for a bare instant, caught by a vague foreboding that he could not explain. But in the end he nodded, as though in answer to the unspoken question in his thoughts. "Will you come down into the cabin, Mark?" he invited quietly. "I've much to ask you; and you must have many things to tell."

Mark nodded. "I will come," he said; and his eyes lighted suddenly, and he dropped a hand on Joel's shoulder. "Aye, Joel," he said softly, into his brother's ear, as they went aft together. "Aye, I've much to tell. Many things and marvelous. Matters you'd scarce credit, Joel." Joel looked at him quickly, and Mark nodded. "True they are, Joel," he cried exultantly. "Marvelous—and true as good, red gold."

At the tone, and the eager light in his brother's eyes, Joel's slow pulses quickened, but he said nothing. At the top of the cabin companion, he stepped aside to let Mark descend first; and Mark went down the steep and awkward stair with the easy, sliding gait of a great cat. Joel, behind him, could see the muscles stir and swell upon his shoulders. In the cabin, Mark halted abruptly, and looked about, and exclaimed: "You've changed things, Joel. I'd not know the ship."

The door into Priscilla's cabin, across the stern, was open. Priss had finished that matter of the ribbon, and was watering her flowers, kneeling on the bench, when she heard Mark's voice, and knew it. And she cried, in surprise and joy: "Mark! Oh—Mark!" And she ran to the door, and stood there, framed for Mark's eyes against the light behind her, hands holding to the door frame on either side.

Mark cried delightedly: "Priss Holt!" And he was at her side in an instant, and caught her without ceremony, and kissed her roundly, as he had been accustomed to do when he came home from the sea. But he must have been a blind man not to have seen in that first moment that Priss was no longer child, but woman. And Mark was not blind. He kissed her till she laughingly fought herself free.

"Mark!" she cried again. "You're not dead. I knew you couldn't be...."

Joel, behind them, at sight of Priscilla in his brother's arms, had stirred with a quick rush of anger; but he was ashamed of it in the next moment, and stood still where he was. Mark held Priss by the shoulders, laughing down at her.

"And how did you know I couldn't be dead?" he demanded. "Miss Wise Lady."

She moved her head confusedly. "Oh—you were always so—so alive, or something.... You just couldn't be...."

He chuckled, released her, and stood away and surveyed her. "Priss, Priss," he said contritely, "you're not a little kid any longer. Dresses down, and hair up...." He wagged his head. "It's a wonder you did not slap my face." And then he looked from her to Joel, and abruptly he tossed his great head back and laughed aloud. "By the Lord," he roared. "The children are married. Married...."

Priscilla flushed furiously, and stamped her foot at him. "Of course we're married," she cried. "Did you think I'd come clear around the world with...." Her words were smothered in her own hot blushes, and Mark laughed again, until she cried: "Stop it. I won't have you laughing at us. Joel—make him stop!"

Mark sobered instantly, and he backed away from Joel in mock panic, both hands raised, defensively, so that they laughed at him. When they laughed, he cast aside his panic, and sat down on the cushions, stretching his legs luxuriously before him. "Now," he exclaimed. "Tell me all about it. When, and why, and how?"

Priss dropped on the bench beside him, feet tucked under her in the miraculous fashion of small women; and she enumerated her answers on the pink tips of her fingers. "When?" she repeated. "The day before we sailed. Why? Just because. How? In the same old way." She waved her hand, as though disposing of the matter once and for all, and looked up at him, and laughed. Joel thought she had not seemed so completely happy since the day the cabin was finished. "So," she said, "that's all there is to tell you about us. Tell us about you."

Mark's eyes twinkled. "Ah, now, what's the use? That will come later. Besides—some chapters are not for gentle ears." He nodded toward Joel. "So you love the boy, yonder?"

Priss bobbed her head, red lips pursed, eyes dancing.

"Why?" Mark demanded. "What do you discover in him?"

She looked at Joel, and they laughed together as though at some delightful secret, mutually shared. Mark wagged his head dolorously. "And I suppose he's wild about you?" he asked.

She nodded more vigorously than ever.

Mark rubbed his hands together. He looked at Joel, with a faintly malicious twinkle in his eyes. "Well, now!" he exclaimed. "That is certainly the best of news...." Joel saw the mocking and malignant little devil in his eye. "I've never had a kid sister," said Mark gayly. "And it's been the great sorrow of my life, Priss. So, Joel, you must expect Priss and myself to turn out the very best of friends."

And Priscilla, on the seat beside him, nodded her lovely head once more. "I should say so," she exclaimed.



VII

Mark Shore held something like a reception, on the Nathan Ross, all that first day. He went forward among the men to greet old friends and meet new ones, and came back and complimented Joel on the quality of his crew. "You've made good men of them," he said. "Those that weren't good men before."

He listened, with a smile half contemptuous, to Jim Finch's somewhat slavish phrases of welcome and admiration; and he talked with Varde, the morose second mate, so gayly that even Varde was cozened at last into a grin. Old Hooper was pathetically glad to see him. Hooper had been mate of the ship on which Mark started out as a boy; and he liked to hark back to those days. Young Dick Morrell, on his trips from the shore, gave Mark frank worship.

Joel saw all this. He could not help seeing it. And he told himself, again and again, that it was only to be expected. Mark had captained this ship, had captained these men, on their last cruise; they had thought him dead. It was only natural that they should welcome him back to life again....

But even while he gave himself this reassurance, he knew that it was untrue. There was more than mere welcome in the attitude of the men; there was more than admiration. There was a quality of awe that was akin to worship; and there was, beneath this awe, a lively curiosity as to what Mark would do.... They knew him for a quick man, dominant, one with the will to lead; and now he found himself supplanted, dependent on the word of his own younger brother.... Every one knew that Mark and Joel had always been rather enemies than comrades; so, now, they wondered, and waited, and watched with all their eyes. Joel saw them, by twos and threes, whispering together about the ship; and he knew what it was they were asking each other.

Of all those on the Nathan Ross that day, Mark himself seemed least conscious of the dramatic possibilities of the situation. He was glad to be back among friends; but beyond that he did not go. He gave Joel an exaggerated measure of respect, so extreme that it was worse than scorn or mockery. Otherwise, he took no notice of the potentialities created by his return.

Priss had planned to go ashore in the afternoon; but Mark dissuaded her. This was not difficult; he did it so laughingly and so dextrously that Priss changed her mind without knowing just why she did so. Mark took it upon himself to make up for her disappointment; they were together most of the long, hot afternoon. Joel could hear their laughter now and then.

He had expected to go ashore with Priss; but when she came to him and said: "Joel, Mark says it's just dirty and hot and ugly, ashore, and I'm not going," he changed his mind. There was no need of his making the trip, after all. Varde and Morrell had brought out water, towing long strings of almost-filled casks behind their boats; and boats from the shore had come off to sell fresh food. So at dusk, the anchor came up, and the Nathan Ross spread her dingy sails, and stalked out of the harbor with the utmost dignity in every stiff line of her, and the night behind them swallowed up the island. Mark and Priss were astern to watch it blend in the darkness and lose itself; and Priss, when their last glimpse of it faded, heard the man draw a deep breath of something like relief. She looked up at him with wide, curious eyes.

"What is it?" she asked softly. "Were you—unhappy there?"

Mark laughed aloud. "My dear Priss," he said, in the elder-brother manner he affected toward her. "My dear Priss, the South Sea Islands are no place for a white man, especially when he is alone. I'm glad to get back in the smell of oil, with an honest deck underfoot. And I don't mind saying so."

Priss shuddered, and wrinkled her nose. "Ugh, how I hate that smell," she exclaimed. "But, Mark—tell me where you've been, and what you did, and—everything. Why won't you tell?"

He wagged his head at her severely. "Children," he said, "should be seen and not heard."

She stamped her foot. "I'm not a child. I'm a woman."

He bent toward her suddenly, his dark eyes so close to hers that she could see the flickering flame which played in them, and the twist of his smile. "I wonder!" he whispered. "Oh—I wonder if you are...."

She was frightened, deliciously....

Mark had persisted, all day long, in his refusal to tell her of himself. He had dropped a sentence now and then that brought to life in her imagination a strange, wild picture.... But always he set a bar upon his lips, caught back the words, refused to explain what it was he had meant to say. When she persisted, he laughed at her and told her he only did it to be mysterious. "Mystery is always interesting, you understand," he explained. "And—I wish to be very interesting to you, Priss."

She looked around the after deck for Joel; but he was below in the cabin, and she decided, abruptly, that she must go down....

They had bought chickens at Tubuai, and they had two of them, boiled, for supper that night in the cabin. It was a feast, after the long months of sober diet; and the presence of Mark made it something more. He was a good talker, and without revealing anything of the months of his disappearance, he nevertheless told them stories that held each one breathless with interest. But after supper, he went on deck with Finch, and Joel and Priss sat in the cabin astern for a while; and Joel wrote up, in the ship's log, the story of his brother's return. Priss read it over his shoulder, and afterwards she clung close to Joel. "He's a terribly—overwhelming man, isn't he?" she whispered.

Joel looked down at her, and smiled thoughtfully. "Aye, Mark's a big man," he agreed. "Big—in many ways. But—you'll be used to him presently, Priss."

When she prepared to go to bed, he bade her good night and left her, and went on deck; and Priss, in her narrow bunk in the cabin at the side of the ship, lay wide-eyed with many thoughts stirring in her small head. She was still awake when she heard them come down into the main cabin together, Joel and Mark. The walls were thin; she could hear their words, and she heard Mark ask: "Sure Priss is asleep? There are parts—not for the pretty ears of a bride, Joel."

Priss was not asleep, but when Joel came to see, she closed her eyes, and lay as still as still, scarce breathing. Joel bent over her softly; and he touched her head, clumsily, with his hand, and patted it, and went away again, closing her door behind him. She heard him tell Mark: "Aye, she's fast asleep."

The brothers sat by Joel's desk, in the cabin across the stern; and Mark, without preamble, told his story there. Priss, ten feet away, heard every word; and she lay huddled beneath the blankets, eyes staring upward into the darkness of her cabin; and as she listened, she shuddered and trembled and shrank at the terror and wonder and ugliness of the tale he told. No Desdemona ever listened with such half-caught breath....



VIII

"You're blaming me," said Mark, when he and Joel were puffing at their pipes, "for leaving my ship."

Joel said slowly: "No. But I do not understand it."

Mark laughed, a soft and throaty laugh. "You would not, Joel. You would not. For you never felt an overwhelming notion that you must dance in the moon upon the sand. You've never felt that, Joel; and—I have."

"I'm not a hand for dancing," said Joel.

Mark seemed to forget that his brother sat beside him. His eyes became misty and thoughtful, as though he were living over again the days of which he spoke. "Mind, Joel," he said, "there's a pagan in every man of us. And there's two pagans in some of us. And I'm minded, Joel, that there are three of them in me. 'Twas so, that night."

"It was night when you left the ship?"

"Aye, night. Night, and the moon; and it may have been that I had been drinking a drop or two. Also, as you shall see, I was not well. I tell these things, not by way of excuse and palliation; but only so that you may understand. D'ye see? I was three pagans in one body, and that body witched by moon, and twisted by drink, and trembling with fever. And so it was I went ashore, and flung my men behind me, and went off, dancing, along the hard sand.

"That was a night, Joel. A slow-winded, warm, trembling night when there was a song in the very air. The wind tingled on your throat like a woman's finger tips; and the sea was singing at the one side, and the wind in the palms on the other. And ahead of me, the wild, discordant chanting of the Islanders about their fires.... That singing it was that got me by the throat, and led me. I twirled around and around, very solemnly, by myself in the moonlight on the sand; and all the time I went onward toward the fires....

"I remember, when I came in sight of the fires, I threw away my coat and ran in among them. And they scattered, and yelled their harsh, meaningless, throaty yells. And they hid in the bush to stare at me by the fire.... They hid in the rank, thick grasses. All except one, Joel."

Joel, listening, watched his brother and saw through his brother's eyes; for he knew, for all his slow blood, the witchery of those warm, southern nights.

"The moon was on her," said Mark. "The moon was on her, and there was a red blossom in her hair, and some strings of things that clothed her. A little brown girl, with eyes like the eyes of a deer. And—not afraid of me. That was the thing that got me, Joel. She stood in my path, met me, watched me; and her eyes were not afraid....

"She was very little. She was only a child. I suppose we would call her sixteen or seventeen years old. But they ripen quickly, Joel—these Island children. Her little shoulders were as smooth and soft.... You could not even mark the ridge of her collar bones, she was fleshed so sweetly. She stood, and watched me; and the others crept out of the grasses, at last, and stood about us. And then this little brown girl held up her hand to me, and pointed me out to the others, and said something. I did not know what it was that she said; but I know now. She said that I was sick.

"I did not know then that I was sick. When she lifted her hand to me, I caught it; and I began to lead her in a wild dance, in the moonlight, about their dying fires. I could see them, in the shadows, their eyeballs shining as they watched us.... And they seemed, after a little, to move about in a misty, inhuman fashion; and they twisted into strange, cloud-like shapes. And I stopped to laugh at them, and my head dropped down before I could catch it and struck against the earth, and the earth forsook me, Joel, and left me swimming in nothing at all....

"My memory was a long time in coming back to me, Joel. It would peep out at me like a timid child, hiding among the trees. I would see it for an instant; then 'twould be gone. But I know it must have been many days that I was on the island there. And I knew, after a time, that I was most extremely sick; and the little brown girl put cool leaves on my head, and gave me strange brews to drink, and rubbed and patted my chest and my body with her hands in a fashion that was immensely comfortable and strengthening. And I twisted on a bed of coarse grass.... And I remember singing, at times...."

He looked toward Joel, eyes suddenly flaming. "Eh, Joel, I tell you I was not three pagans, but six, in those days. The thing's clear beyond your guessing, Joel. But it was big. An immense thing. I was back at the beginning of the world, with food, and drink, and my woman.... It was big, I tell you. Big!"

His eyes clouded—he fell silent, and so at last went on again. "I was asleep one night, tossing in my sleep. And something woke me. And I laid my hand on the spot beside me where the little brown girl used to lie, and she was gone. So I got up, unsteadily. There were rifles snapping in the night; and there were screams. And I heard a white man's black curse; and the slap of a blow of flesh on flesh. And the screams.

"So I went that way; and the sounds retreated before me, until I came out, unsteadily, upon the open beach. There was no moon, that night; and the water of the lagoon was shot with fire. And there was a boat, pulling away from the beach, with screaming in it.

"I swam after the boat for a long time, for I thought I had heard the voice of the little brown girl. The water was full of fire. When I lifted my arms, the fire ran down them in streams and drops. And sometimes I forgot what I was about, and stopped to laugh at these drops of fire. But in the end, I always swam on. I remember once I thought the little brown girl swam beside me, and I tried to throw my arm about her, and she wrenched away, and she burned me like a brand. I found, afterwards, what that was. My breast and sides were rasped and raw where a shark's rough skin had scraped them. I've wondered, Joel, why the beast did not take me....

"But he did not; for I bumped at last into the boat, and climbed into it, and it was empty. But I saw a rope at the end of it, and I pulled the rope, and came to the schooner's stern, and climbed aboard her."

His voice was ringing, exultantly and proudly. "I swung aboard," he said. "And I stumbled over fighting bodies on the deck, astern there. And some one cried out, in the waist of her; and I knew it was the little brown girl. So I left those struggling bodies at the stern, for they were not my concern; and I went forward to the waist. And I found her there.

"A fat man had her. She was fighting him; and he did not see me. And I put my fingers quietly into his neck, from behind; and when he no longer kicked back at me, and no longer tore at my fingers with his, I dropped him over the side. I saw a fiery streak in the water where I dropped him. That shark was not so squeamish as the one I had—embraced. It may have been the other was embarrassed at my ways, Joel. D'ye think that might have been the way of it?"

Joel's knuckles were white, where his hand rested on his knee. Mark saw, and laughed softly. "There's blood in you, after all, boy," he applauded. "I've hopes for you."

Joel said slowly: "What then? What then, Mark?"

Mark laughed. "Well, that was a very funny thing," he said. "You see, the other two men, they were busy, astern, with their own concerns. And when I had comforted the little brown girl, and sat down on the deck to laugh at the folly of it all, she slipped away from me, and went aft, and got all their rifles. She brought them to me. She seemed to expect things of me. So I, still laughing, for the fever was on me; I took the rifles and threw them, all but one, over the side. And I went down into the cabin, with the little brown girl, and went to bed; and she sat beside me, with the rifle, and a lamp hanging above the door....

"And that was all that happened, until I woke one morning and saw her there, and wondered where I was. And my head was clear again. She made me understand that the men had sought to come at me, but had feared the rifle in her hands....

"And we were in the open sea, as I could feel by the labor of the schooner underfoot. So I took the rifle in the crook of my arm, and with the little brown girl at my heel, I went up on deck. And we made a treaty."

He fell silent for a moment, and Joel watched him, and waited. And at last, Mark went on.

"I had been more than a month on the island," he said. "The Nathan Ross had gone. This schooner was a pearler, and they had the location of a bed of shell. They had been waiting till another schooner should leave the place, to leave their own way clear. And when that time came, they went ashore to get the brown women for companions on that cruise. And they made the mistake of picking up my little brown girl, when she ran out of the hut. And so brought me down upon them.

"There were two of them left; two whites, and three black men forward, who were of no account. And the other two women. These other two were chattering together, on the deck astern, when I appeared. They seemed content enough....

"The men were not happy. There was a large man with slanting eyes. There was Oriental blood in him. You could see that. He called himself Quint. But his eyes were Jap, or Chinese; and he had their calm, blank screen across his countenance, to hide what may have been his thoughts. Quint, he called himself. And he was a big man, and very much of a man in his own way, Joel.

"The other was little, and he walked with a slink and a grin. His name was Fetcher. And he was oily in his speech.

"When they saw me, they studied me for a considerable time without speech. And I stood there, with the rifle in my arm, and laughed at them. And at last, Quint said calmly:

"'You took Farrell.'

"'The fat man?' I asked him. He nodded. 'Yes,' I said. 'He took my girl, and so I dropped him into the water, and a friend met him there and hurried him away.'

"'Your girl?' he echoed, in a nasty way. 'You're that, then?'

"'Am I?' I asked, and shifted the rifle a thought to the fore. And his eyes held mine for a space, and then he shook his head.

"'I see that I was mistaken,' he said.

"'Your sight is good,' I told him. 'Now—what is this? Tell me.'

"He told me, evenly and without malice. They had a line on the pearls; there were enough for three. I was welcome. And at the end, I nodded my consent. The Nathan Ross was gone. Furthermore, there were nine pagans in me now; and the prospect of looting some still lagoon, in company with these two rats, had a wild flavor about it that caught me. My blood was burning; and the sun was hot. Also, they had liquor aboard her. Liquor, and loot, and the three women. Pagan, Joel. Pagan! But wild and red and raw. There's a glory about such things.... Songs are made of them.... There was no handshaking; but we made alliance, and crowded on sail, and went on our way."

He stopped short, laughed, filled his pipe again, watched Joel. "You're shocked with me, boy. I can see it," he taunted mockingly. Joel shook his head. "Will you hear the rest?" Mark asked; and Joel nodded. Mark lighted his pipe, laughed.... His fingers thrummed on the desk beside him.

"We were a week on the way," he said. "And all pagan, every minute of the week. Days when we fought a storm—as bad as I've ever seen, Joel. We fought it, holding to the ropes with our teeth, bare to the waist, with the wind scourging us. It tore at us, and lashed at us.... And we drove the three black men with knives to their work. And the three women stayed below, except my little brown girl. She came up, now and then, with dry clothes for me.... And I had to drive her to shelter....

"And when there was not the storm, there was liquor; and they had cards. We staked our shares in the catch that was to come.... Hour on hour, dealing, and playing with few words; and our eyes burned hollow in their sockets, and Quint's thin mouth twisted and writhed all the time like a worm on a pin. He was a nervous man, for all his calm. A very nervous man....

"The fifth day, one of the blacks stumbled in Quint's path, on deck. Quint had been losing, at the cards. He slid a knife from his sleeve into the man's ribs, and tipped the black over the rail without a word. I was twenty feet away, and it was done before I could catch breath. I shouted; and Quint turned and looked at me, and he smiled.

"'What is it?' he asked. 'Have you objections to present?' And the smeared blade in his hand, and the bubbles still rising, overside. I was afraid of the man, Joel. I tell you I was afraid. The only time. Fear's a pagan joy, boy. It was like a new drink to me. I nursed it, eating it. And I shook my head, humble.

"'No objections,' I said, to Quint. ''Tis your affair.'

"'That was my thought,' he agreed, and passed me, and went astern. I stood aside to let him pass, and trembled, and laughed for the joy of my fear.

"And then we came to the lagoon, and the blacks began to dive. Only the two we had; and there was no sign of Islanders, ashore. But the water was shallow, and we worked the men with knives, and they got pearls. Sometimes one or two in a day; sometimes a dozen. Do you know pearls, Joel? They're sweet as a woman's skin. I had never seen them, before. And we all went a little mad over them....

"They made Fetcher hysterical. He laughed too much. They made Quint morose. They made me tremble...."

He wiped his hand across his eyes, as though the memory wearied him; and he moved his great shoulders, and looked at Joel, and laughed. "But it could not last, in that fashion," he said. "It might have been anything. It turned out to be the women. I said they seemed content. They did. But that may be the way of the blacks. They have a happy habit of life; they laugh easily....

"At any rate, we found one morning that Quint's girl was gone. She was not on the schooner; and ashore, we found her tracks in the sand. She had gone into the trees. And we beat the island, and we did not find her. And Quint sweated. All that day.

"That night, he looked at my little brown girl, and touched her shoulder. I was across the deck, the girl coming to me with food. I said to him: 'No. She's mine, Quint.' And he looked at me, and I beat him with my eyes. And as his turned from mine, Fetcher and his woman came on deck, and Quint tapped Fetcher, and said to him: 'What will you take for her?'

1  2     Next Part
Home - Random Browse