FLORRIE had proved herself a good cook, and they ate dinner together, then Denman went on deck. The boat was still rolling on a calm sea; but the long, steady, low-moving hills of blue were now mingled with a cross swell from the northwest, which indicated a push from beyond the horizon not connected with the trade wind. And in the west a low bank of cloud rose up from, and merged its lower edge with, the horizon; while still higher shone a “mackerel sky,” and “mare’s tail” clouds—sure index of coming wind. But there was nothing on the horizon in the way of sail or smoke; and, anticipating another long night watch, he began preparations for it.
Three red lights at the masthead were needed as a signal that the boat—a steamer—was not under command. These he found in the lamp room. He filled, trimmed, and rigged them to the signal halyards on the bridge, ready for hoisting at nightfall. Then, for a day signal of distress, he hoisted an ensign—union down—at the small yard aloft.
Next in his mind came the wish to know his position, and he examined the log book. Forsythe had made an attempt to start a record; and out of his crude efforts Denman picked the figures which he had noted down as the latitude and longitude at noon of the day before. He corrected this with the boat’s course throughout the afternoon until the time of shutting off the oil feed, and added the influence of a current, which his more expert knowledge told him of. Thirty-one, north, and fifty-five, forty, west was the approximate position, and he jotted it down.
This done, he thought of the possibility of lighting the boat through the night, and sought the engine room. He was but a theoretical engineer, having devoted most of his studies to the duties of a line officer; but he mastered in a short time the management of the small gas engine that worked the dynamo, and soon had it going. Electric bulbs in the engine room sprang into life; and, after watching the engine for a short time, he decided that it required only occasional inspection, and sought the deck.
The cross sea was increasing, and the bank to the northwest was larger and blacker, while the mare’s tails and mackerel scales had given way to cirrus clouds that raced across the sky. Damp gusts of wind blew, cold and heavy, against his cheek; and he knew that a storm was coming that would try out the low-built craft to the last of its powers. But before it came he would polish up his forgotten knowledge of wireless telegraphy, and searched the wireless room for books.
He found everything but what he wanted most—the code book, by which he could furbish up on dots and dashes. Angry at his bad memory, he studied the apparatus, found it in working order, and left the task to go on deck.
An increased rolling of the boat threatened the open deadlights. Trusting that the men in the forecastle would close theirs, he attended to all the others, then sought Florrie in the galley, where she had just finished the washing of the dishes. Her face was not pale, but there was a wild look in her eyes, and she was somewhat unsteady on her feet.
“Oh, Billie, I’m sick—seasick,” she said, weakly. “I’m a poor sailor.”
“Go to bed, little girl,” he said, gently. “We’re going to have some bad weather, but we’re all right. So stay in bed.”
He supported her aft through the wardroom to her stateroom door in the after cabin. “I’ll get supper, Florrie, and, if you can eat, I’ll bring you some. Lie down now, and don’t get up until I call you, or until you feel better.”
He again sought the deck. The wind now came steadily, while the whole sky above and the sea about were assuming the gray hue of a gale. He closed all hatches and companions, taking a peep down into the engine room before closing it up. The dynamo was buzzing finely.
A few splashes of rain fell on him, and he clothed himself in oilskins and rubber boots to watch out the gale, choosing to remain aft—where his footsteps over her might reassure the seasick girl below—instead of the bridge, where he would have placed himself under normal conditions.
The afternoon wore on, each hour marked by a heavier pressure of the wind and an increasing height to the seas, which, at first just lapping at the rail, now lifted up and washed across the deck. The boat rolled somewhat, but not to add to his discomfort or that of those below; and there were no loose articles on deck to be washed overboard.
So Denman paced the deck, occasionally peeping down the engine-room hatch at the dynamo, and again trying the drift by the old-fashioned chip-and-reel log at the stern. When tired, he would sit down in the deck chair, which he had wedged between the after torpedo and the taffrail, then resume his pacing.
As darkness closed down, he sought Florrie’s door, and asked her if she would eat something. She was too ill, she said; and, knowing that no words could comfort her, he left her, and in the galley ate his own supper—tinned meat, bread, and coffee.
Again the deck, the intermittent pacing, and resting in the chair. The gale became a hurricane in the occasional squalls; and at these times the seas were beaten to a level of creamy froth luminous with a phosphorescent glow, while the boat’s rolling motion would give way to a stiff inclination to starboard of fully ten degrees. Then the squalls would pass, the seas rise the higher for their momentary suppression, and the boat resume her wallowing, rolling both rails under, and practically under water, except for the high forecastle deck, the funnels, and the companions.
Denman did not worry. With the wind northwest, the storm center was surely to the north and east-ward of him; and he knew that, according to the laws of storms in the North Atlantic, it would move away from him and out to sea.
And so it continued until about midnight, when he heard the rasping of the companion hood, then saw Florrie’s face peering out. He sprang to the companion.
“Billie! Oh, Billie!” she said, plaintively. “Let me come up here with you?”
“But you’ll feel better lying down, dear,” he said. “Better go back.”
“It’s so close and hot down there. Please let me come up.”
“Why, yes, Florrie, if you like; but wait until I fit you out. Come down a moment.”
They descended, and he found rubber boots, a sou’wester, and a long oilskin coat, which she donned in her room. Then he brought up another chair, lashed it—with more neckties—to his own, and seated her in it.
“Don’t be frightened,” he said, as a sea climbed on board and washed aft, nearly flooding their rubber boots and eliciting a little scream from the girl. “We’re safe, and the wind will blow out in a few hours.”
He seated himself beside her. As they faced to leeward, the long brims of the sou’westers sheltered their faces from the blast of rain and spume, permitting conversation; but they did not converse for a time, Denman only reaching up inside the long sleeve of her big coat to where her small hand nestled, soft and warm, in its shelter. He squeezed it gently, but there was no answering pressure, and he contented himself with holding it.
He was a good sailor, but a poor lover, and—a reeling, water-washed deck in a gale of wind is an embarrassing obstacle to love-making. Yet he squeezed again, after ten minutes of silence had gone by and several seas had bombarded their feet. Still no response in kind, and he spoke.
“Florrie,” he said, as gently as he could when he was compelled to shout, “do you remember the letter you sent me the other day?”
“The other day,” she answered. “Why, it seems years since then.”
“Last week, Florrie. It made me feel like—like thirty cents.”
“Oh, the unwritten roast between the lines, little girl. I knew what you thought of me. I knew that I’d never made good.”
“How—what do you mean?”
“About the fight—years ago. I was to come back and lick him, you know, and didn’t—that’s all.”
“Are you still thinking of that, Billie? Why, you’ve won. You are an officer, while he is a sailor.”
“Yes, but he licked me at school, and I know you expected me to come back.”
“And you did not come back. You never let me hear from you. You might have been dead for years before I could know it.”
“Is that it, Florrie?” he exclaimed, in amazement. “Was it me you thought of? I supposed you had grown to despise me.”
She did not answer this; but when he again pressed her hand she responded. Then, over the sounds of the storm, he heard a little sob; and, reaching over, drew her face close to his, and kissed her.
“I’m sorry, Florrie, but I didn’t know. I’ve loved you all these years, but I did not know it until a few days ago. And I’ll never forget it, Florrie, and I promise you—and myself, too—that I’ll still make good, as I promised before.”
Poor lover though he was, he had won. She did not answer, but her own small hand reached for his.
And so they passed the night, until, just as a lighter gray shone in the east, he noticed that one of the red lamps at the signal yard had gone out. As the lights were still necessary, he went forward to lower them; but, just as he was about to mount the bridge stairs, a crashing blow from two heavy fists sent him headlong and senseless to the deck.
When he came to, he was bound hand and foot as he had bound the men—with neckerchiefs—and lay close to the forward funnel, with the whole thirteen, Jenkins and all, looking down at him. But Jenkins was not speaking. Forsythe, searching Denman’s pockets, was doing all that the occasion required.