Chapter 24




THE OPEN SEA


Our haste, however, availed us little, for there was no wind at all. We lay for over two hours under the weird light, over-canopied by the red- brown cloud, while the explosions shook the foundations of the world. Nobody ventured below. The sails flapped idly from the masts: the blocks and spars creaked: the three-cornered waves rose straight up and fell again as though reaching from the deep.

When the men first began to sweat the sails up, evidently in preparation for an immediate departure, I objected vehemently.

"You aren't going to leave him on the island," I cried. "He'll die of starvation."

They did not answer me; but after a little more, when my expostulations had become more positive, Handy Solomon dropped the halliard, and drew me to one side.

"Look here, you," he snarled, "you'd better just stow your gab. You're lucky to be here yourself, let alone botherin' your thick head about anybody else, and you can kiss the Book on that! Do you know why you ain't with them carrion?" He jerked his thumb toward the beach. "It's because Solomon Anderson's your friend. Thrackles would have killed you in a minute 'count of his bit hand. I got you your chance. Now don't you be a fool, for I ain't goin' to stand between you and them another time. Besides, he won't last long if that volcano keeps at it."

He left me. Whatever truth lay in his assumption of friendship, and I doubted there existed much of either truth or friendship in him, I saw the common sense of his advice. I was in no position to dictate a course of action.

After the sails were on her we gathered at the starboard rail to watch the shore. There the hills ran into inky blackness, as the horizon sometimes merges into a thunder squall. A dense white steam came from the creek bed within the arroyo. The surges beat on the shore louder than the ordinary, and the foam, even in these day hours, seemed to throw up a faint phosphorescence. Frequent earthquakes oscillated the landscape. We watched, I do not know for what, our eyes straining into the murk of the island. Nobody thought of the chest, which lay on the cabin table aft. I contributed maliciously my bit to their fear.

"These volcanic islands sometimes sink entirely," I suggested, "and in that case we'd be carried down by the suction."

It was intended merely to increase their uneasiness, but, strangely enough, after a few moments it ended by imposing itself on my own fears. I began to be afraid the island would sink, began to watch for it, began to share the fascinated terror of these men.

The suspense after a time became unbearable, for while the portent-- whether physical or moral we were too far under its influence to distinguish--grew momentarily, our own souls did not expand in due correspondence. We talked of towing, of kedging out, of going to any extreme, even to small boats. Then just as we were about to move toward some accomplishment, a new phenomenon chained our attention to the shore.

In the mouth of the arroyo appeared a red glow. A moment later a wave of lava, white-hot, red, iridescent, cooling to a black crust cracked in incandescence, rolled majestically out over the grassy plain. Each instant it grew in volume, until the ravine must have been flowing half full.

Before its scorching the grasses even at the edge of the sea were smoking, and our camp had already burst into flames. We had to shield our faces against the heat, and the wooden railing under our hands was growing warm.

Pulz turned an ashy countenance toward us.

"My God," he screamed. "What's going to happen when she hits the sea?"

She hit the sea, and immediately a great cloud of steam arose, and the hissing as of a thousand serpents. We felt the strong suction under our keel, and staggered under the jerk of the ship's cable as she swung toward the beach. The paint was beginning to crackle along the rail. We could see nothing for the scalding white veil that enveloped us; we could hear nothing for the roar of steam, the bombardment of explosions, and the crash of thunder; but our nostrils were assaulted by a most unearthly medley of smells.

"Hell's loose," growled Thrackles.

We were clinging hard as the ship reeled. Huge surges were racing in from seaward, growing larger with each successive billow.

Handy Solomon raised his head, listened intently, and struck his forehead.

"Wind," he screamed at the top of his voice, and jumped for the halliards.

Thrackles followed him, but no one else moved. In an instant the two were back, striking and kicking savagely, rousing their companions to the danger. We all laid into the canvas like mad, and in no time had snugged down to a staysail and the peak of our mainsail. Thrackles drew his knife and jumped for the cable, while Handy Solomon, his eyes snapping, seized the wheel.

We finished just in time. I was turning away after tying the last gasket on the foresail, when the deck up-ended and tipped me headforemost into the starboard scupper. At the same time a smother of salt water blew over the port rail, now far above me, to drench me as thoroughly as though I had fallen overboard. I brushed out my eyes to find the ship smack on her beam ends, and the wind howling by from the sea.

I had company enough in the scuppers. Only Handy Solomon clung desperately to the wheel, jamming his weight to port in the hope she might pay up: Thrackles, too, his eye squinted along some bearing of his own, was waiting for her to drag. Presently it became evident that she was doing so, whereupon he drew his knife across our hawser.

"My God," chattered Pulz at my ear. "If we go ashore--"

He did not need to finish. Unless the Laughing Lass could recover before the squall had driven her to leeward a scant half mile, we should be cooked alive in the boiling cauldron at the shore's edge.

For an interminable time, as it seemed to me, we lay absolutely motionless. The scene is stamped indelibly on my memory--the bulwarks high above me, the steep, sleek deck, the piratical figure tense at the wheel, the snarling water racing from beneath us, the lurid glow to landward crawling up on us inch by inch like a hungry wild beast. Then almost imperceptibly the brave schooner righted. The strained lines on Handy Solomon's carven features relaxed little by little. Thrackles, staring over the side, let out a mighty roar.

"Steerage way," he shouted, and executed an awkward clog dance on the reeling deck.

She moved forward, there was no doubt of that, for gradually we were eating toward the wind--but we made considerable leeway as well. Handy Solomon, taut as the weather rigging, took his little advantages one by one like precious gifts. Light there was none; the land was blotted out by the steam and murk which had crept to sea and now was hurled back by the wind. All we could do was to hang there, tasting the copper of excitement, waiting for these different forces to adjust themselves. Inch by inch we crept forward: foot by foot we made leeway. The intensest of the lava glow worked its way from directly abeam to the quarter. By this we knew we must be nearly opposite the cove. At once a new doubt sprang up in our minds.

A moment ago all the energy of our desires had gone up in the ambition to avoid being cast on the beach. Now we saw that that was not enough. It was necessary to squeeze around the point where lay the Golden Horn, in order to avoid the fate that had overtaken her. Handy Solomon yelled something at us. We could not hear, but our own knowledge told us what it must be, and with one accord we turned to on the foresail. With the peak of it hoisted we moved a trifle faster, though the schooner lay over at a perilous angle. A moment later the fogs parted to show us the cliffs looming startlingly near. There were the donkey engine and the works we had constructed for wrecking--and there beside them, watching us reflectively, stood Percy Darrow.

For ten minutes we stared at him fascinated, during which time the ship laboured against the staggering winds, gained and lost in its buffeting with the great surges. The breakers hurling themselves in wild abandon against the rocks sent their back-wash of tumbling peaks to our very bilges. The few remains of the Golden Horn, alternately drenched and draining, seemed to picture to us our inevitable end.

I think we had all selected the same two points for our "bearings," a rock and a drop of the cliff bolder than the ordinary. If the rock opened from the cliff to eastward, we were lost; if it remained stationary, we were at least holding our own; if it opened out to westward, we were saved. We watched with a strained eagerness impossible to describe. At each momentary gain or rebuff we uttered ejaculations. The Nigger mumbled charms. Every once in a while one of us would snatch a glance to leeward at the cruel, white waters, the whirl of eddies where the sea was beaten, only to hurry back to the rock and the point of the cliff whence our message of safety or destruction was to be flung. Once I looked up. Percy Darrow was leaning gracefully against a stanchion, watching. His soft hat was pulled over his eyes; he stroked softly his little moustache; I caught the white puff of his cigarette. During the moment of my inattention something happened. A wild shout burst from the men. I whirled, and saw to my great joy a strip of sky westward between the cliff and the rock. And at that very instant a billow larger than the ordinary rolled beneath us, and in the back suction of its passage I could dimly make out cruel, dangerous rocks lying almost under our keel.

Slowly we crept away. Our progress seemed infinitesimal, and yet it was real. In a while we had gained sea room; in a while more we were fairly under sailing way, and the cliffs had begun to drop from our quarter. With one accord we looked back. Percy Darrow waved his hand in an indescribably graceful and ironic gesture; then turned square on his heel and sauntered away to the north valley, out of the course of the lava. That was the last I ever saw of him.

As we made our way from beneath the island, the weight of the wind seemed to lessen. We got the foresail on her, then a standing jib; finally little by little all her ordinary working canvas. Before we knew it, we were bowling along under a stiff breeze, and the island was dropping astern.

From a distance it presented a truly imposing sight. The centre shot intermittent blasts of ruddy light; explosions, deadened by distance, still reverberated strongly; the broad canopy of brown-red, split with lightnings, spread out like a huge umbrella. The lurid gloom that had enveloped us in the atmosphere apparently of a nether world had given place to a twilight. Abruptly we passed from it to a sun-kissed, sparkling sea. The breeze blew sweet and strong; the waves ran untortured in their natural long courses.

At once the men seemed to throw off the superstitious terror that had cowed them. Pulz and Thrackles went to bail the extra dory, alongside, which by a miracle had escaped swamping. The Nigger disappeared in the galley. Perdosa relieved Handy Solomon at the wheel; and Handy Solomon came directly over to me.




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