From the Royal Yard Down
by Morgan Robertson
As night descended, cold and damp, the wind hauled, and by nine o'clock the ship was charging along before a half-gale and a rising sea from the port quarter. When the watch had braced the yards, the mate ordered the spanker brailed in and the mizzen-royal clued up, as the ship steered hard. This was done, and the men coiled up the gear.
"Let the spanker hang in the brails; tie up the royal," ordered the mate from his position at the break of the poop.
"Aye, aye, sir," answered a voice from the group, and an active figure sprang into the rigging. Another figure—slim and graceful, clad in long yellow oilskin coat, and a sou'wester which could not confine a tangled fringe of wind-blown hair—left the shelter of the after-companionway and sped along the alley to the mate's side.
"The foot-rope, Mr. Adams," she said hurriedly. "The seizing was chafed, you remember."
"By George, Miss Freda!" said the officer. "Forgot all about it. Glad you spoke. Come down from aloft," he added in a roar.
The sailor answered and descended.
"Get a piece of spun yarn out o' the booby-hatch and take it up wi' you," continued the mate. "Pass a temporary seizing on the lee royal foot-rope. Make sure it's all right 'fore you get on it, now."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The man passed down the poop steps, secured the spun yarn, and while rolling it into a ball to put in his pocket, stood for a moment in the light shining from the second mate's room. The girl on the poop looked down at him. He was a trim-built, well-favored young fellow, with more refinement in his face than most sailors can show; yet there was no lack of seamanly deftness in the fingers which balled up the spun yarn and threw a half-hitch with the bight of the lanyard over the point of the marlinespike which hung to his neck. As he climbed the steps, the girl faced him, looking squarely into his eyes.
"Be careful, John—Mr. Owen," she said. "The seizing is chafed through. I heard the man report it—it was Dutch George of the other watch. Do be careful."
"Eh, why—why, yes, Miss Folsom. Thank you. But you startled me. I've been Jack for three years—not John, nor Mister. Yes, it's all right; I——"
"Get aloft to that mizzenroyal," thundered the mate, now near the wheel.
"Aye, aye, sir." He touched his sou'wester to the girl and mounted the weather mizzen-rigging, running up the ratlines as a fireman goes up a ladder. It was a black night with cold rain, and having thrown off his oiled jacket, he was already drenched to the skin; but no environment of sunshine, green fields and woodland, and flower-scented air ever made life brighter to him than had the incident of the last few moments; and with every nerve in his body rejoicing in his victory, and her bitter words of four years back crowding his mind as a contrasting background, he danced up and over the futtock-shrouds, up the topmast-rigging, through the crosstrees, and up the topgallant-rigging to where the ratlines ended and he must climb on the runner of the royal-halyards. As the yard was lowered, this was a short climb, and he swung himself upward to the weather yard-arm, where he rolled up one side of the sail with extravagant waste of muscular effort; for she had said he was not a man, and he had proved her wrong: he had conquered himself, and he had conquered her.
He hitched the gasket, and crossed over to the lee side, forgetting, in his exhilaration, the object of the spun yarn in his pocket and the marlinespike hung from his neck, stepped out on the foot-rope, passed his hands along the jack-stay to pull himself farther, and felt the foot-rope sink to the sound of snapping strands. The jackstay was torn from his grasp, and he fell, face downward, into the black void beneath.
An involuntary shriek began on his lips, but was not finished. He felt that the last atom of air was jarred from his lungs by what he knew was the topgallant-yard, four feet below the royal; and, unable to hold on, with a freezing cold in his veins and at the hair-roots, he experienced in its fullness the terrible sensation of falling,—whirling downward,—clutching wildly at vacancy with stiffened fingers.
The first horror past, his mind took on a strange contemplativeness; fear of death gave way to mild curiosity as to the manner of it. Would he strike on the lee quarter, or would he go overboard? And might he not catch something? There was rigging below him—the lee royal-backstay stretched farthest out from the mast, and if he brushed it, there was a possible chance. He was now face upward, and with the utmost difficulty moved his eyes,—he could not yet, by any exercise of will or muscle, move his head,—and there, almost within reach, was a dark line, which he knew was the royal-backstay; farther in toward the spars was another—the topgallant-backstay; and within this, two other ropes which he knew for the topgallant-rigging, though he could see no ratlines, nor could he distinguish the lay of the strands; the ropes appeared like solid bars. This, with the fact that he was still but a few feet below the topgallant-yard, surprised him, until it came to him that falling bodies travel over sixteen feet in the first second of descent, which is at a rate too fast for distinct vision, and that the apparent slowness of his falling was but relative—because of the quickness of his mind, which could not wait on a sluggish optic nerve and more sluggish retina.
Yet he wondered why he could not reach out and grasp the backstay. It seemed as though invisible fetters bound every muscle and joint, though not completely. An intense effort of will resulted in the slow extension of all the fingers of his right hand, and a little straightening of the arm toward the backstay; but not until he had fallen to the level of the upper topsail-yard was this result reached. It did no good; the backstay was now farther away. As it led in a straight line from the royal-masthead to the rail, this meant that he would fall overboard, and the thought comforted him. The concussion would kill him, of course; but no self-pity afflicted him now. He merely considered that she, who had relented, would be spared the sight of him crushed to a pulp on the deck.
As he drifted slowly down past the expanse of upper topsail, he noticed that his head was sinking and his body turning so that he would ultimately face forward; but still his arms and legs held their extended position, like those of a speared frog, and the thought recalled to him an incident of his infancy—a frog-hunt with an older playmate, his prowess, success, wet feet, and consequent illness. It had been forgotten for years, but the chain was started, and led to other memories, long dead, which rose before him. His childhood passed in review, with its pleasures and griefs; his school-days, with their sports, conflicts, friends and enemies; college, where he had acquired the polish to make him petted of all but one—and abhorrent to her. Almost every person, man or woman, boy or girl, with whom he had conversed in his whole life, came back and repeated the scene; and as he passed the lower topsail-yard, nearly head downward, he was muttering commonplaces to a brown-faced, gray-eyed girl, who listened, and looked him through and through, and seemed to be wondering why he existed.
And as he traversed the depth of the lower topsail, turning gradually on his axis, he lived it over—next to his first voyage, the most harrowing period of his life: the short two months during which he had striven vainly to impress this simple-natured sailor-girl with his good qualities, ending at last with his frantic declaration of a love that she did not want.
"But it's not the least use, John," she said to him. "I do not love you, and I cannot. You are a gentleman, as they say, and as such I like you well enough; but I never can love you, nor any one like you. I've been among men, real men, all my life, and perhaps have ideals that are strange to you. John,"—her eyes were wide open in earnestness,—"you are not a man."
Writhing under her words, which would have been brutal spoken by another, he cursed, not her, nor himself, but his luck and the fates that had shaped his life. And next she was showing him the opened door, saying that she could tolerate profanity in a man, but not in a gentleman, and that under no circumstances was he to claim her acquaintance again. Then followed the snubbing in the street, when, like a lately whipped dog, he had placed himself in her way, hoping she would notice him; and the long agony of humiliation and despair as his heart and soul followed her over the seas in her father's ship, until the seed she had planted—the small suspicion that her words were true—developed into a wholesome conviction that she had measured him by a higher standard than any he had known, and found him wanting. So he would go to her school, and learn what she knew.
With lightning-like rapidity his mind rehearsed the details of his tuition: the four long voyages; the brutality of the officers until he had learned his work; their consideration and rough kindness when he had become useful and valuable; the curious, incongruous feeling of self-respect that none but able seamen feel; the growth in him of an aggressive physical courage; the triumphant satisfaction with which he finally knew himself as a complete man, clean in morals and mind, able to look men in the face. And then came the moment when, mustering at the capstan with the new crew of her father's ship, he had met her surprised eyes with a steady glance, and received no recognition.
And so he pleaded his cause, dumbly, by the life that he lived. Asking nothing by word or look, he proved himself under her eyes—first on deck; first in the rigging; the best man at a weather-earing; the best at the wheel; quick, obedient, intelligent, and respectful, winning the admiration of his mates, the jealous ill will of the officers, but no sign of interest or approval from her until to-night—the ninety-second day of the passage. She had surrendered; he had reached her level, only to die; and he thought this strange.
Facing downward, head inboard now, and nearly horizontal, he was passing the cross-jack yard. Below him was the sea—black and crisp, motionless as though carved in ebony. Neither was there movement of the ship and its rigging; the hanging bights of ropes were rigid, while a breaking sea just abaft the main chains remained poised, curled, its white crest a frozen pillow of foam. "The rapidity of thought," he mused dreamily; "but I'm falling fast enough—fast enough to kill me when I strike."
He could not move an eyelid now, nor was he conscious that he breathed; but, being nearly upright, facing aft and inboard, the quarter-deck and its fittings were before his eyes, and he saw what brought him out of eternity to a moment of finite time and emotion. The helmsman stood at the motionless wheel with his right hand poised six inches above a spoke, as though some sudden paralysis gripped him, and his face, illumined by the binnacle light, turned aloft inquiringly. But it was not this. Standing at the taffrail, one hand on a life-buoy, was a girl in yellow looking at him,—unspeakable horror in the look,—and around her waist the arm of the mate, on whose rather handsome face was an evil grin.
A pang of earthly rage and jealousy shot through him, and he wished to live. By a supreme effort of will he brought his legs close together and his arms straight above his head; then the picture before him shot upward, and he was immersed in cold salt water, with blackness all about him. How long he remained under he could not guess. He had struck feet first and suffered no harm, but had gone down like a deep-sea lead. He felt the aching sensation in his lungs coming from suppressed breathing, and swam blindly in the darkness, not knowing in which direction was the surface, until he felt the marlinespike—still fastened to his neck—extending off to the right. Sure that it must hang downward, he turned the other way, and, keeping it parallel with his body, swam with bursting lungs, until he felt air upon his face and knew that he could breathe. In choking sobs and gasps his breath came and went, while he paddled with hands and feet, glad of his reprieve; and when his lungs worked normally, he struck out for a white, circular life-buoy, not six feet away. "Bless her for this," he prayed, as he slipped it under his arms. His oilskin trousers were cumbersome, and with a little trouble he shed them.
He was alive, and his world was again in motion. Seas lifted and dropped him, occasionally breaking over his head. In the calm of the hollows, he listened for voices of possible rescuers. On the tops of the seas,—ears filled with the roar of the gale,—he shouted, facing to leeward, and searching with strained eyes for sign of the ship or one of her boats. At last he saw a pin-point of light far away, and around it and above it blacker darkness, which was faintly shaped to the outline of a ship and canvas—hove to in the trough, with maintopsail aback, as he knew by its foreshortening. And even as he looked and shouted it faded away. He screamed and cursed, for he wanted to live. He had survived that terrible fall, and it was his right.
Something white showed on the top of a sea to leeward and sank in a hollow. He sank with it, and when he rose again it was nearer.
"Boat ahoy!" he sang out. "Boat ahoy!—this way—port a little—steady."
He swam as he could, cumbered by the life-buoy, and with every heaving sea the boat came nearer. At last he recognized it—the ship's dinghy; and it was being pulled into the teeth of that forceful wind and sea by a single rower—a slight figure in yellow.
"It's Freda," he exclaimed; and then, in a shout: "This way, Miss Folsom—a little farther."
She turned, nodded, and pulled the boat up to him. He seized the gunwale, and she took in the oars.
"Can you climb in alone, John?" she asked in an even voice—as even as though she were asking him to have more tea. "Wait a little,—I am tired,—and I will help you."
She was ever calm and dispassionate, but he wondered at her now; yet he would not be outdone.
"I'll climb over the stern, Freda, so as not to capsize you. Better go forward to balance my weight."
She did so. He pulled himself to the stern, slipped the life-buoy over his head and into the boat, then, by a mighty exercise of all his strength, vaulted aboard with seeming ease and sat down on a thwart. He felt a strong inclination to laughter and tears, but repressed himself; for masculine hysterics would not do before this young woman. She came aft to the next thwart, and when he felt steadier he said:
"You have saved my life, Freda; but thanks are idle now, for your own is in danger. Give me the oars. We must get back to the ship."
She changed places with him, facing forward, and said wearily, as he shipped the oars: "So you want to get back?"
"Why, yes; don't you? We are adrift in an open boat."
"The wind is going down, and the seas do not break," she answered, in the same weary voice. "It does not rain any more, and we will have the moon."
A glance around told him that she spoke truly. There was less pressure to the wind, and the seas rose and fell, sweeping past them like moving hills of oil. Moonlight shining through thinning clouds faintly illumined her face, and he saw the expressionless weariness of her voice, and a sad, dreamy look in her gray eyes.
"How did you get the dinghy down, Freda?" he asked. "And why did no one come with you?"
"Father was asleep, and the mate was incompetent. I had my revolver, and they backed the yards for me and threw the dinghy over. I had loosened the gripes as you went aloft. I thought you would fall. Still—no one would come."
"And you came alone," he said in a broken voice, "and pulled this boat to windward in this sea. You are a wonder."
"I saw you catch the life-buoy. Why did you fall? You were cautioned."
"I forgot the foot-rope. I was thinking of you."
"You are like the mate. He forgot the foot-rope all day because he was thinking of me. I should have gone aloft and seized it myself."
There was no reproof or sarcasm in the tired voice. She had simply made an assertion.
"Why are you at sea, before the mast—a man of your talents?"
It was foolish, he knew; but the word "man" sent a thrill through him.
"To please you if I may; to cultivate what you did not find in me."
"Yes, I knew; when you came on board I knew it. But you might have spoken to me."
There was petulance in the tone now, and the soul of the man rejoiced. The woman in her was asserting itself.
"Miss Folsom," he answered warmly, "I could not. You had made it impossible. It was your right, your duty, if you wished it. But you ignored my existence."
"I was testing you. I am glad now, Mr. Owen."
The petulance was gone, but there was something chilling in this answer.
"Can you see the ship?" he asked after a moment's silence. "The moonlight is stronger."
"We will not reach her. They have squared away. The mate had the deck, and father is asleep."
"And left you in an open boat," he answered angrily.
"He knew I was with you."
What was irrelevant in this explanation of the mate's conduct escaped him at the time. The full moon had emerged from behind the racing clouds, and it brightened her face, fringed by the tangled hair and yellow sou'wester, to an unearthly beauty that he had never seen before. He wondered at it, and for a moment a grisly thought crossed his mind that this was not life, but death; that he had died in the fall, and in some manner the girl had followed.
She was standing erect, her lithe figure swaying to the boat's motion, and pointing to leeward, while the moonlit face was now sweetened by the smile of a happy child. He stood up, and looked where she pointed, but saw nothing, and seated himself to look at her.
"See!" she exclaimed gleefully. "They have hauled out the spanker and are sheeting home the royal. I will never be married! I will never be married! He knew I was with you."
Again he stood up and searched the sea to leeward. There was nothing in sight.
"Unhinged," he thought, "by this night's trouble. Freda," he said gently, "please sit down. You may fall overboard."
"I am not insane," she said, as though reading his thought; and, smiling radiantly in his face, she obeyed him.
"Do you know where we are?" he asked tentatively. "Are we in the track of ships?"
"No," she answered, while her face took on the dreamy look again. "We are out of all the tracks. We will not be picked up. We are due west from Ilio Island. I saw it at sundown broad on the starboard bow. The wind is due south. If you will pull in the trough of the sea we can reach it before daylight. I am tired—so tired—and sleepy. Will you watch out?"
"Why, certainly. Lie down in the stern-sheets and sleep if you can."
She curled up in her yellow oil-coat and slumbered through the night, while he pulled easily on the oars—not that he had full faith in her navigation, but to keep himself warm. The sea became smoother, and as the moon rose higher, it attained a brightness almost equal to that of the sun, casting over the clear sky a deep-blue tint that shaded indefinitely into the darkness extending from itself to the horizon. Late in the night he remembered the danger of sleeping in strong moonlight, and arising softly to cover her face with his damp handkerchief, he found her looking at him.
"We are almost there, John. Wake me when we arrive," she said, and closed her eyes.
He covered her face, and, marveling at her words, looked ahead. He was within a half-mile of a sandy beach which bordered a wooded island. The sea was now like glass in its level smoothness, and the air was warm and fragrant with the smell of flowers and foliage. He shipped the oars, and pulled to the beach. As the boat grounded she arose, and he helped her ashore.
The beach shone white under the moonlight, and dotting it were large shellfish and moving crabs that scuttled away from them. Bordering the beach were forest and undergrowth with interlacery of flowering vines. A ridge of rocks near by disclosed caves and hollows, some filled by the water of tinkling cascades. Oranges snowed in the branches of trees, and cocoa-palms lifted their heads high in the distance. A small deer arose, looked at them, and lay down, while a rabbit inspected them from another direction and began nibbling.
"An earthly paradise, I should say," he observed, as he hauled the boat up the beach. "Plenty of food and water, at any rate."
"It is Ilio Island," she answered, with that same dreamy voice. "It is uninhabited and never visited."
"But surely, Freda, something will come along and take us off."
"No; if I am taken off I must be married, of course; and I will never be married."
"Who to, Freda? Whom must you marry if we are rescued?"
"The mate—Mr. Adams. Not you, John Owen—not you. I do not like you."
She was unbalanced, of course; but the speech pained him immeasurably, and he made no answer. He searched the clean-cut horizon for a moment, and when he looked back she was close to him, with the infantile smile on her face, candor and sanity in her gray eyes. Involuntarily he extended his arms, and she nestled within them.
be married, Freda," he said; "you
be married, and to me."
He held her tightly and kissed her lips; but the kiss ended in a crashing sound, and a shock of pain in his whole body which expelled the breath from his lungs. The moonlit island, sandy beach, blue sea and sky were swallowed in a blaze of light, which gave way to pitchy darkness, with rain on his face and whistling wind in his ears, while he clung with both arms, not to a girl, but to a hard, wet, and cold mizzentopgallant-yard whose iron jack-stay had bumped him severely between the eyes. Below him in the darkness a scream rang out, followed by the roar of the mate: "Are you all right up there? Want any help?"
He had fallen four feet.
When he could speak he answered: "I'm all right, sir." And catching the royal foot-rope dangling from the end of the yard above him, he brought it to its place, passed the seizing, and finished furling the royal. But it was a long job; his movements were uncertain, for every nerve in his body was jumping in its own inharmonious key.
"What's the matter wi' you up there?" demanded the mate when he reached the deck; and a yellow-clad figure drew near to listen.
"It was nothing, sir; I forgot about the foot-rope."
"You're a bigger lunkhead than I thought. Go forrard."
He went, and when he came aft at four bells to take his trick at the wheel, the girl was still on deck, standing near the companionway, facing forward. The mate stood at the other side of the binnacle, looking at her, with one elbow resting on the house. There was just light enough from the cabin skylight for Owen to see the expression which came over his face as he watched the graceful figure balancing to the heave of the ship. It took on the same evil look which he had seen in his fall, while there was no mistaking the thought behind the gleam in his eyes. The mate looked up,—into Owen's face,—and saw something there which he must have understood; for he dropped his glance to the compass, snarled out, "Keep her on the course," and stepped into the lee alleyway, where the dinghy, lashed upside down on the house, hid him from view.
The girl approached the man at the wheel.
"I saw you fall, Mr. Owen," she said in a trembling voice, "and I could not help screaming. Were you hurt much?"
"No, Miss Folsom," he answered in a low though not a steady tone; "but I was sadly disappointed."
"I confess I was nervous—very nervous—when you went aloft," she said; "and I cleared away the life-buoy. Then, when you fell, it slipped out of my hand and went overboard. Mr. Adams scolded me. Wasn't it ridiculous?" There were tears and laughter in the speech.
"Not at all," he said gravely; "it saved my life—for which I thank you."
"Who in Sam Hill's been casting off these gripe-lashings?" growled the voice of the mate behind the dinghy.
The girl tittered hysterically, and stepped beside Owen at the wheel, where she patted the moving spokes, pretending to assist him in steering.
"Miss Freda," said the officer, sternly, as he came around the corner of the house, "I must ask you plainly to let things alone; and another thing, please don't talk to the man at the wheel."
"Will you please mind your own business?" she almost screamed; and then, crying and laughing together: "If you paid as much attention to your work as you do to—to—me, men wouldn't fall from aloft on account of rotten foot-ropes."
The abashed officer went forward, grumbling about "discipline" and "women aboard ship." When he was well out of sight in the darkness, the girl turned suddenly, passed both arms around Owen's neck, exerted a very slight pressure, patted him playfully on the shoulder as she withdrew them, and sped down the companionway.
He steered a wild course during that trick, and well deserved the profane criticism which he received from the mate.