The sun was breaking above the sea line, and the Pacific, heaving to
the swell, lay all to the eastward in meadows of gold.
The little boat, moving gently to the vast and tremorless heaving of
the sea, seemed abandoned in that world where nothing moved save the
swell, and, far away, a frigate bird drifting south, dwindling and
vanishing at last, blotted out in the blue of the morning sky.
The man in the stern of the boat lay as though he were dead, his arm
curled over a water breaker and his head on his arm; but now, at the
first touch of the sun, he moved, sat up, and, clasping his head with
both hands, stared about him.
Heavens! What an awakening that was from sleep, the absolute and
profound sleep that follows on disaster! In a moment, as though his
mind had been suddenly lit by a great flash of energy that had been
accumulating since he closed his eyes, he saw the whole of the events
of the last three days in their entirety; he saw the past right back to
his childhood, as men see it in that supreme moment that comes to the
drowning, and which lights recollection to its farther frontiers.
He saw the schooner _Cormorant_ landing at Ginnis’ Wharf in Frisco,
and he saw himself on board of it as second mate, Harrod, the first
mate, standing by the weather rail, and Coxon, the skipper, just come
on board, wiping his face with a red bandanna handkerchief before
giving orders to cast off from the wharf where the tall Cape Horners
lay moored by the Russian oil tanks, and the grain vessels by the great
elevators were filling with living wheat.
He saw the Golden Gate and towering Tamalpais and the great Pacific,
violent with the ruffling of the west wind and rolling toward the
coast, to burst in eternal song on the beaches of California.
They were bound for Papeetong, away down near the Low Archipelago, with
a trade room well stocked and plenty of copra in prospect.
The _Cormorant_ was well found, well manned, and Coxon was an A-1
schooner captain; everything promised a prosperous voyage and a quick
return, when on the evening of the second day out Coxon had called his
second mate down to the saloon.
“Floyd,” said he, “it’s not for me to say a word to the second mate
against the first, but Harrod, though he’s the best chap in the world
in some ways, has a weak spot, and that’s drink. You notice he never
touches anything, but there’s no knowing how long he’s on that tack–it
may last the voyage, it mayn’t. Not that he’s any way out of the common
when he’s on liquor, but it’s never no good to have a man boozy out
of port, so, like a good chap, lead him off it if he seems taken that
way. He’s my own brother-in-law, and as good as they make ’em, else he
wouldn’t be aboard the _Cormorant_. It’s my ambition to break him of
it, and he’s willing to be broke; still, the flesh is weak, as you’ll
soon discover if you live long in this world and knock against men–and
there you are. A word to the wise.”
Coxon’s own weakness was a violent temper–we all have our
weaknesses–and Floyd’s was a happy-go-lucky optimism that made him
believe in all men. He was only twenty-two, the son of a parson in
Devonshire, educated up to fifteen at Blundell’s School, set adrift in
the world by the death of his father, and choosing the sea, prompted by
the master ambition of his life, to be a sailor.
Harrod had run straight for the first week, and then he had fallen. He
would appear on deck slightly thick of speech, and sometimes he had a
stagger in his walk, and he would repeat his remarks in an uncalled-for
way, and tend to turn quarrelsome at the least word.
They could not tell where he got the drink from, nor did they know the
fact that his condition was due neither to rum or whisky, but to samshu.
Samshu is a horrible, treacly compound made by the Chinese of the
coast; it is not kept in a bottle, but in a jar, and it is the last
thing in the way of intoxicants. Balloon Juice, Cape Smoke, Valley Tan
vie with each other in villainy, but Samshu is the worst.
It is very rarely found out of Canton and Shanghai, and it had been
brought on board the _Cormorant_ by the Chinese cook, who traded it to
Harrod for money and tobacco.
A gale had struck them, driving them some hundred miles from their
course, and when it had passed, Harrod, one afternoon, under the
influence of this stuff, had gone into the hole where paint and
varnish were stored, carrying a light. A few minutes later came a cry
of fire. Coxon was the first man on deck. He saw in a moment that there
was no hope. The varnish room was blazing like a torch, belching smoke
and sparks and jets of flame like a dragon, and just as unapproachable.
There was nothing to be done but take to the boats.
The Kanaka crew and the Chinaman whose samshu jar had done all this
bundled into the longboat. Floyd ought to have been with them, but
he was held back by the work of victualing and lowering the quarter
boat, and they shoved off without him, so the three officers were
left–Floyd, in the quarter-boat, and the skipper and Harrod quarreling
on deck. Coxon’s temper had overmastered him. He was the owner of the
_Cormorant_, and his whole fortune was in the trade on board.
Floyd, hanging on with a boat hook, heard the shouting and stamping
of the men on deck. He tried to get on board again to separate them,
but the smoke drove him back, the heat was terrific, and he cast off,
rowing round to the windward side in the hope of boarding her there.
As he passed round the stern he was just in time to see the end of the
tragedy, Coxon flinging Harrod over the weather rail and following him
into the sea.
Neither of the two men appeared again, and the reason was very
obvious–the water was filled with gray, flitting shadows. The tragedy
of the burning schooner had made its call through the depths of the
sea, and the sharks were assembling for the feast. Floyd waited.
The whole of this terrible business had left him numb and almost
unmoved. Tragedy thrills one most in the theater; on the real stage the
imagination becomes paralyzed before the actual.
He pushed away farther from the flaming schooner; she was burning now
like a torch, and volumes of white smoke passed away to leeward on the
The sun was setting, and the picture of the burning ship against the
glowing western sky would have been unparalleled had there been eyes
to see it as a picture. Floyd, gazing at it, watched while the flames,
half invisible, like the ghosts of brightly spangled snakes, ran up the
masts. He saw the canvas wither away, and then he watched her lurch as
the seams opened to the heat and dip her bowsprit in the sea.
She settled slowly, the sea boiling about her, and then suddenly she
plunged bow first and vanished.
In less than twenty seconds there was nothing to tell that a vessel had
been there with the exception of a wreath of smoke dissolving in the
blue of evening.
The upper limb of the sun had just passed beneath the horizon, and
in the momentary twilight before the rush of the stars Floyd saw the
longboat, far away, and with sail hoisted to the wind.
Then the night came down, and at dawn next day the longboat had
As he awoke from sleep now he saw all these pictures vividly. Till the
night before he had not slept at all, and it was the return to normal
conditions of his brain refreshed by sleep that now gave him a full
view of his past and his position.
The quarter-boat possessed a mast and lugsail; he had stepped the mast
and hoisted the sail, which now hung limp and flicking to the warm,
steadily blowing wind.
He rose up, and, standing with one hand on the mast, looked over the
sea. North, south, east, and west it lay blazing in the sunshine, with
not a sign of sail or wing on the dazzle and the blueness, an infinite
world of sky, an infinite world of water all flooded by the living
light of the great golden sun.
Floyd, having glanced about him, returned to his former place in the
stern of the boat and began to review his stores; he had taken stock of
them twice in the last two days, but had you asked him now to give an
account of them he would have been at a loss to say exactly how they
The water breaker was his first consideration. It was half full–enough
to last him for six days, he reckoned. There was a full bag of ship’s
bread, another half full, some tins of potatoes, some tins of canned
meat, but no can opener, and a few tins of condensed milk. So much for
the provisions. There were also in the boat the ship’s papers and a
japanned tin box containing the ship’s money. These Coxon had flung in
before the quarrel between him and Harrod had broken out. There was
nothing else at all with the exception of a boat hook and a bailer.
He had in his pockets a knife and one of those tinder boxes in which
the flint strikes on a wheel, a pocket handkerchief, a few loose
matches, and a pipe and some tobacco. It was American navy twist, and
he had nearly half a pound of it. It was the first thing he found in
his cabin on rushing down, and it was the only thing he had taken away.
Having breakfasted off a biscuit and a bit of meat from one of the
cans which he managed to haggle open with his knife, he lit his pipe,
brought the sheet aft, and took the tiller. It did not matter in the
least where he steered, for Australia and China lay away to the west,
the whole continent of America to the east–both were hopeless; the Low
Archipelago lay to the south, and the hope of an island was just as
brilliant in any given direction.
So he gave his sail to the wind, trusting in God.
As the morning wore on, the sea line became hung with light, fleecy
clouds that deepened the far-off blue of the sea. This fringe of light
cloud often hangs on the skirts of the Trades. Steering, Floyd could
hear the tune of the water as it flapped on the boarding and rippled in
the wake. The breeze was not strong enough to raise any sea, and the
swell was scarcely perceptible unless to the eye.