The Open Boat
A Tale intended to be
after the fact. Being the experience of four men from the sunk steamer
By Stephen Crane
None of them knew the color
of the sky. Their eyes glanced level, and were fastened upon the waves
that swept toward them. These waves were of the hue of slate, save for
the tops, which were of foaming white, and all of the men knew the colors
of the sea. The horizon narrowed and widened, and dipped and rose, and
at all times its edge was jagged with waves that seemed thrust up in points
like rocks. Many a man ought to have a bath-tub larger than the boat which
here rode upon the sea. These waves were most wrongfully and barbarously
abrupt and tall, and each froth-top was a problem in small-boat navigation.
The cook squatted in the
bottom and looked with both eyes at the six inches of gunwale which separated
him from the ocean. His sleeves were rolled over his fat forearms, and
the two flaps of his unbuttoned vest dangled as he bent to bail out the
boat. Often he said: "Gawd! That was a narrow clip." As he remarked it
he invariably gazed eastward over the broken sea.
The oiler, steering with
one of the two oars in the boat, sometimes raised himself suddenly to keep
clear of water that swirled in over the stern. It was a thin little oar
and it seemed often ready to snap.
The correspondent, pulling
at the other oar, watched the waves and wondered why he was there.
The injured captain, lying
in the bow, was at this time buried in that profound dejection and indifference
which comes, temporarily at least, to even the bravest and most enduring
when, willy nilly, the firm fails, the army loses, the ship goes down.
The mind of the master of a vessel is rooted deep in the timbers of her,
though he commanded for a day or a decade, and this captain had on him
the stern impression of a scene in the greys of dawn of seven turned faces,
and later a stump of a top-mast with a white ball on it that slashed to
and fro at the waves, went low and lower, and down. Thereafter there was
something strange in his voice. Although steady, it was, deep with mourning,
and of a quality beyond oration or tears.
"Keep 'er a little more south,
Billie," said he.
"'A little more south,' sir,"
said the oiler in the stern.
A seat in this boat was not
unlike a seat upon a bucking broncho, and by the same token, a broncho
is not much smaller. The craft pranced and reared, and plunged like an
animal. As each wave came, and she rose for it, she seemed like a horse
making at a fence outrageously high. The manner of her scramble over these
walls of water is a mystic thing, and, moreover, at the top of them were
ordinarily these problems in white water, the foam racing down from the
summit of each wave, requiring a new leap, and a leap from the air. Then,
after scornfully bumping a crest, she would slide, and race, and splash
down a long incline, and arrive bobbing and nodding in front of the next
A singular disadvantage of
the sea lies in the fact that after successfully surmounting one wave you
discover that there is another behind it just as important and just as
nervously anxious to do something effective in the way of swamping boats.
In a ten-foot dingey one can get an idea of the resources of the sea in
the line of waves that is not probable to the average experience which
is never at sea in a dingey. As each slatey wall of water approached, it
shut all else from the view of the men in the boat, and it was not difficult
to imagine that this particular wave was the final outburst of the ocean,
the last effort of the grim water. There was a terrible grace in the move
of the waves, and they came in silence, save for the snarling of the crests.
In the wan light, the faces
of the men must have been grey. Their eyes must have glinted in strange
ways as they gazed steadily astern. Viewed from a balcony, the whole thing
would doubtless have been weirdly picturesque. But the men in the boat
had no time to see it, and if they had had leisure there were other things
to occupy their minds. The sun swung steadily up the sky, and they knew
it was broad day because the color of the sea changed from slate to emerald-green,
streaked with amber lights, and the foam was like tumbling snow. The process
of the breaking day was unknown to them. They were aware only of this effect
upon the color of the waves that rolled toward them.
In disjointed sentences the
cook and the correspondent argued as to the difference between a life-saving
station and a house of refuge. The cook had said: "There's a house of refuge
just north of the Mosquito Inlet Light, and as soon as they see us, they'll
come off in their boat and pick us up."
"As soon as who see us?"
said the correspondent.
"The crew," said the cook.
"Houses of refuge don't have
crews," said the correspondent. "As I understand them, they are only places
where clothes and grub are stored for the benefit of shipwrecked people.
They don't carry crews."
"Oh, yes, they do," said
"No, they don't," said the
"Well, we're not there yet,
anyhow," said the oiler, in the stern.
"Well," said the cook, "perhaps
it's not a house of refuge that I'm thinking of as being near Mosquito
Inlet Light. Perhaps it's a life- saving station."
"We're not there yet," said
the oiler, in the stern.
As the boat bounced from
the top of each wave, the wind tore through the hair of the hatless men,
and as the craft plopped her stern down again the spray splashed past them.
The crest of each of these waves was a hill, from the top of which the
men surveyed, for a moment, a broad tumultuous expanse, shining and wind-riven.
It was probably splendid. It was probably glorious, this play of the free
sea, wild with lights of emerald and white and amber.
"Bully good thing it's an
on-shore wind," said the cook; "If not, where would we be? Wouldn't have
"That's right," said the
The busy oiler nodded his
Then the captain, in the
bow, chuckled in a way that expressed humor, contempt, tragedy, all in
one. "Do you think We've got much of a show now, boys?" said he.
Whereupon the three were
silent, save for a trifle of hemming and hawing. To express any particular
optimism at this time they felt to be childish and stupid, but they all
doubtless possessed this sense of the situation in their mind. A young
man thinks doggedly at such times. On the other hand, the ethics of their
condition was decidedly against any open suggestion of hopelessness. So
they were silent.
"Oh, well," said the captain,
soothing his children, "We'll get ashore all right."
But there was that in his
tone which made them think, so the oiler quoth: "Yes! If this wind holds!"
The cook was bailing: "Yes!
If we don't catch hell in the surf."
Canton flannel gulls flew
near and far. Sometimes they sat down on the sea, near patches of brown
seaweed that rolled on the waves with a movement like carpets on a line
in a gale. The birds sat comfortably in groups, and they were envied by
some in the dingey, for the wrath of the sea was no more to them than it
was to a covey of prairie chickens a thousand
miles inland. Often they came very close and stared at the men with black
bead-like eyes. At these times they were uncanny and sinister in their
unblinking scrutiny, and the men hooted angrily at them, telling them to
be gone. One came, and evidently decided to alight on the top of the captain's
head. The bird flew parallel to the boat and did not circle, but made short
sidelong jumps in the air in chicken- fashion. His black eyes were wistfully
fixed upon the captain's head. "Ugly brute," said the oiler to the bird.
"You look as if you were made with a jack-knife." The cook and the correspondent
swore darkly at the creature. The captain naturally wished to knock it
away with the end of the heavy painter; but he did not dare do it, because
anything resembling an emphatic gesture would have capsized this freighted
boat, and so with his open hand, the captain gently and carefully waved
the gull away. After it had been discouraged from the pursuit the captain
breathed easier on account of his hair, and others breathed easier because
the bird struck their minds at this time as being somehow grewsome and
In the meantime the oiler
and the correspondent rowed And also they rowed.
They sat together in the
same seat, and each rowed an oar. Then the oiler took both oars; then the
correspondent took both oars; then the oiler; then the correspondent. They
rowed and they rowed. The very ticklish part of the business was when the
time came for the reclining one in the stern to take his turn at the oars.
By the very last star of truth, it is easier to steal eggs from under a
hen than it was to change seats in the dingey. First the man in the stern
slid his hand along the thwart and moved with care, as if he were of Sevres.
Then the man in the rowing seat slid his hand along the other thwart. It
was all done with most extraordinary care. As the two sidled past each
other, the whole party kept watchful eyes on the coming wave, and the captain
cried: "Look out now! Steady there!"
The brown mats of seaweed
that appeared from time to time were like islands, bits of earth. They
were traveling, apparently, neither one way nor the other. They were, to
all intents, stationary. They informed the men in the boat that it was
making progress slowly toward the land.
The captain, rearing cautiously
in the bow, after the dingey soared on a great swell, said that he had
seen the light-house at Mosquito Inlet. Presently the cook remarked that
he had seen it. The correspondent was at the oars then, and for some reason
he too wished to look at the lighthouse, but his back was toward the far
shore and the waves were important, and for some time he could not seize
an opportunity to turn his head. But at last there came a wave more gentle
than the others, and when at the crest of it he swiftly scoured the western
"See it?" said the captain.
"No," said the correspondent
slowly, "I didn't see anything."
"Look again," said the captain.
He pointed. "It's exactly in that direction."
At the top of another wave,
the correspondent did as he was bid, and this time his eyes chanced on
a small still thing on the edge of the swaying horizon. It was precisely
like the point of a pin. It took an anxious eye to find a light house so
"Think we'll make it, captain?"
"If this wind holds and the
boat don't swamp, we can't do much else," said the captain.
The little boat, lifted by
each towering sea, and splashed viciously by the crests, made progress
that in the absence of seaweed was not apparent to those in her. She seemed
just a wee thing wallowing, miraculously top-up, at the mercy of five oceans.
Occasionally, a great spread of water, like white flames, swarmed into
"Bail her, cook," said the
"All right, captain," said
the cheerful cook.
It would be difficult to
describe the subtle brotherhood of men that was here established on the
seas. No one said that it was so. No one mentioned it. But it dwelt in
the boat, and each man felt it warm him. They were a captain, an oiler,
a cook, and a correspondent, and they were friends, friends in a more curiously
iron-bound degree than may be common. The hurt captain, lying against the
water-jar in the bow, spoke always in a low voice and calmly, but he could
never command a more ready and swiftly obedient crew than the motley three
of the dingey. It was more than a mere recognition of what was best for
the common safety. There was surely in it a quality that was personal and
heartfelt. And after this devotion to the commander of the boat there was
this comradeship that the correspondent, for instance, who had been taught
to be cynical of men, knew even at the time was the best experience of
his life. But no one said that it was so. No one mentioned it.
"I wish we had a sail," remarked
the captain. "We might try my overcoat on the end of an oar and give you
two boys a chance to rest." So the cook and the correspondent held the
mast and spread wide the overcoat. The oiler steered, and the little boat
made good way with her new rig. Sometimes the oiler had to scull sharply
to keep a sea from breaking into the boat, but otherwise sailing was a
Meanwhile the lighthouse
had been growing slowly larger. It had now almost assumed color, and appeared
like a little grey shadow on the sky. The man at the oars could not be
prevented from turning his head rather often to try for a glimpse of this
little grey shadow.
At last, from the top of
each wave the men in the tossing boat could see land. Even as the lighthouse
was an upright shadow on the sky, this land seemed but a long black shadow
on the sea. It certainly was thinner than paper. "We must be about opposite
New Smyrna," said the cook, who had coasted this shore often in schooners.
"Captain, by the way, I believe they abandoned that life-saving station
there about a year ago."
"Did they?" said the captain.
The wind slowly died away.
The cook and the correspondent were not now obliged to slave in order to
hold high the oar. But the waves continued their old impetuous swooping
at the dingey, and the little craft, no longer under way, struggled woundily
over them. The oiler or the correspondent took the oars again.
Shipwrecks are _a propos_
of nothing. If men could only train for them and have them occur when the
men had reached pink condition, there would be less drowning at sea. Of
the four in the dingey none had slept any time worth mentioning for two
days and two nights previous to embarking in the dingey, and in the excitement
of clambering about the deck of a foundering ship they had also forgotten
to eat heartily.
For these reasons, and for
others, neither the oiler nor the correspondent was fond of rowing at this
time. The correspondent wondered ingenuously how in the name of all that
was sane could there be people who thought it amusing to row a boat. It
was not an amusement; it was a diabolical punishment, and even a genius
of mental aberrations could never conclude that it was anything but a horror
to the muscles and a crime against the back. He mentioned to the boat in
general how the amusement of rowing struck him, and the weary-faced oiler
smiled in full sympathy. Previously to the foundering, by the way, the
oiler had worked double-watch in the engine-room of the ship.
"Take her easy, now, boys,"
said the captain. "Don't spend yourselves. If we have to run a surf you'll
need all your strength, because we'll sure have to swim for it. Take your
Slowly the land arose from
the sea. From a black line it became a line of black and a line of white,
trees and sand. Finally, the captain said that he could make out a house
on the shore. "That's the house of refuge, sure," said the cook. "They'll
see us before long, and come out after us."
The distant lighthouse reared
high. "The keeper ought to be able to make us out now, if he's looking
through a glass," said the captain. "He'll notify the life-saving people."
"None of those other boats
could have got ashore to give word of the wreck," said the oiler, in a
low voice. "Else the lifeboat would be out hunting us."
Slowly and beautifully the
land loomed out of the sea. The wind came again. It had veered from the
north-east to the south-east. Finally, a new sound struck the ears of the
men in the boat. It was the low thunder of the surf on the shore. "We'll
never be able to make the lighthouse now," said the captain. "Swing her
head a little more north, Billie," said he.
"'A little more north,' sir,"
said the oiler.
Whereupon the little boat
turned her nose once more down the wind, and all but the oarsman watched
the shore grow. Under the influence of this expansion doubt and direful
apprehension was leaving the minds of the men. The management of the boat
was still most absorbing, but it could not prevent a quiet cheerfulness.
In an hour, perhaps, they would be ashore.
Their backbones had become
thoroughly used to balancing in the boat, and they now rode this wild colt
of a dingey like circus men. The correspondent thought that he had been
drenched to the skin, but happening to feel in the top pocket of his coat,
he found therein eight cigars. Four of them were soaked with sea-water;
four were perfectly scathless. After a search, somebody produced three
dry matches, and thereupon the four waifs rode impudently in their little
boat, and with an assurance of an impending rescue shining in their eyes,
puffed at the big cigars and judged well and ill of all men. Everybody
took a drink of water.
"Cook," remarked the captain,
"there don't seem to be any signs of life about your house of refuge."
"No," replied the cook. "Funny
they don't see us!"
A broad stretch of lowly
coast lay before the eyes of the men. It was of dunes topped with dark
vegetation. The roar of the surf was plain, and sometimes they could see
the white lip of a wave as it spun up the beach. A tiny house was blocked
out black upon the sky. Southward, the slim lighthouse lifted its little
Tide, wind, and waves were
swinging the dingey northward. "Funny they don't see us," said the men.
The surf's roar was here
dulled, but its tone was, nevertheless, thunderous and mighty. As the boat
swam over the great rollers, the men sat listening to this roar. "We'll
swamp sure," said everybody.
It is fair to say here that
there was not a life-saving station within twenty miles in either direction,
but the men did not know this fact, and in consequence they made dark and
opprobrious remarks concerning the eyesight of the nation's life-savers.
Four scowling men sat in the dingey and surpassed records in the invention
"Funny they don't see us."
The lightheartedness of a
former time had completely faded. To their sharpened minds it was easy
to conjure pictures of all kinds of incompetency and blindness and, indeed,
cowardice. There was the shore of the populous land, and it was bitter
and bitter to them that from it came no sign.
"Well," said the captain,
ultimately, "I suppose we'll have to make a try for ourselves. If we stay
out here too long, we'll none of us have strength left to swim after the
And so the oiler, who was
at the oars, turned the boat straight for the shore. There was a sudden
tightening of muscle. There was some thinking.
"If we don't all get ashore--"
said the captain. "If we don't all get ashore, I suppose you fellows know
where to send news of my finish?"
They then briefly exchanged
some addresses and admonitions. As for the reflections of the men, there
was a great deal of rage in them. Perchance they might be formulated thus:
"If I am going to be drowned-- if I am going to be drowned--if I am going
to be drowned, why, in the name of the seven mad gods who rule the sea,
was I allowed to come thus far and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought
here merely to have my nose dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred
cheese of life? It is preposterous. If this old ninny-woman, Fate, cannot
do better than this, she should be deprived of the management of men's
fortunes. She is an old hen who knows not her intention. If she has decided
to drown me, why did she not do it in the beginning and save me all this
trouble? The whole affair is absurd.... But no, she cannot mean to drown
me. She dare not drown me. She cannot drown me. Not after all this work."
Afterward the man might have had an impulse to shake his fist at the clouds:
"Just you drown me, now, and then hear what I call you!"
The billows that came at
this time were more formidable. They seemed always just about to break
and roll over the little boat in a turmoil of foam. There was a preparatory
and long growl in the speech of them. No mind unused to the sea would have
concluded that the dingey could ascend these sheer heights in time. The
shore was still afar. The oiler was a wily surfman. "Boys," he said swiftly,
"she won't live three minutes more, and we're too far out to swim. Shall
I take her to sea again, captain?"
"Yes! Go ahead!" said the
This oiler, by a series of
miracles, and fast and steady oarsmanship, turned the boat in the middle
of the surf and took her safely to sea again.
There was a considerable
silence as the boat bumped over the furrowed sea to deeper water. Then
somebody in gloom spoke. "Well, anyhow, they must have seen us from the
shore by now."
The gulls went in slanting
flight up the wind toward the grey desolate east. A squall, marked by dingy
clouds, and clouds brick-red, like smoke from a burning building, appeared
from the south-east.
"What do you think of those
life-saving people? Ain't they peaches?'
"Funny they haven't seen
"Maybe they think we're out
here for sport! Maybe they think we're fishin'. Maybe they think we're
It was a long afternoon.
A changed tide tried to force them southward, but the wind and wave said
northward. Far ahead, where coast-line, sea, and sky formed their mighty
angle, there were little dots which seemed to indicate a city on the shore.
The captain shook his head.
"Too near Mosquito Inlet."
And the oiler rowed, and
then the correspondent rowed. Then the oiler rowed. It was a weary business.
The human back can become the seat of more aches and pains than are registered
in books for the composite anatomy of a regiment. It is a limited area,
but it can become the theatre of innumerable muscular conflicts, tangles,
wrenches, knots, and other comforts.
"Did you ever like to row,
Billie?" asked the correspondent.
"No," said the oiler. "Hang
When one exchanged the rowing-seat
for a place in the bottom of the boat, he suffered a bodily depression
that caused him to be careless of everything save an obligation to wiggle
one finger. There was cold sea- water swashing to and fro in the boat,
and he lay in it. His head, pillowed on a thwart, was within an inch of
the swirl of a wave crest, and sometimes a particularly obstreperous sea
came in-board and drenched him once more. But these matters did not annoy
him. It is almost certain that if the boat had capsized he would have tumbled
comfortably out upon the ocean as if he felt sure that it was a great soft
"Look! There's a man on the
"There! See 'im? See 'im?"
"Yes, sure! He's walking
"Now he's stopped. Look!
He's facing us!"
"He's waving at us!"
"So he is! By thunder!"
"Ah, now we're all right!
Now we're all right! There'll be a boat out here for us in half-an-hour."
"He's going on. He's running.
He's going up to that house there."
The remote beach seemed lower
than the sea, and it required a searching glance to discern the little
black figure. The captain saw a floating stick and they rowed to it. A
bath-towel was by some weird chance in the boat, and, tying this on the
stick, the captain waved it. The oarsman did not dare turn his head, so
he was obliged to ask questions.
"What's he doing now?"
"He's standing still again.
He's looking, I think.... There he goes again. Toward the house.... Now
he's stopped again."
"Is he waving at us?"
"No, not now! he was, though."
"Look! There comes another
"Look at him go, would you."
"Why, he's on a bicycle.
Now he's met the other man. They're both waving at us. Look!"
"There comes something up
"What the devil is that thing?"
"Why it looks like a boat."
"Why, certainly it's a boat."
"No, it's on wheels."
"Yes, so it is. Well, that
must be the life-boat. They drag them along shore on a wagon."
"That's the life-boat, sure."
"No, by ----, it's--it's
"I tell you it's a life-boat."
"It is not! It's an omnibus.
I can see it plain. See? One of these big hotel omnibuses."
"By thunder, you're right.
It's an omnibus, sure as fate. What do you suppose they are doing with
an omnibus? Maybe they are going around collecting the life-crew, hey?"
"That's it, likely. Look!
There's a fellow waving a little black flag. He's standing on the steps
of the omnibus. There come those other two fellows. Now they're all talking
together. Look at the fellow with the flag. Maybe he ain't waving it."
"That ain't a flag, is it?
That's his coat. Why, certainly, that's his coat."
"So it is. It's his coat.
He's taken it off and is waving it around his head. But would you look
at him swing it."
"Oh, say, there isn't any
life-saving station there. That's just a winter resort hotel omnibus that
has brought over some of the boarders to see us drown."
"What's that idiot with the
coat mean? What's he signaling, anyhow?"
"It looks as if he were trying
to tell us to go north. There must be a life-saving station up there."
"No! He thinks we're fishing.
Just giving us a merry hand. See? Ah, there, Willie!"
"Well, I wish I could make
something out of those signals. What do you suppose he means?"
"He don't mean anything.
He's just playing."
"Well, if he'd just signal
us to try the surf again, or to go to sea and wait, or go north, or go
south, or go to hell--there would be some reason in it. But look at him.
He just stands there and keeps his coat revolving like a wheel. The ass!"
"There come more people."
"Now there's quite a mob.
Look! Isn't that a boat?"
"Where? Oh, I see where you
mean. No, that's no boat."
"That fellow is still waving
"He must think we like to
see him do that. Why don't he quit it? It don't mean anything."
"I don't know. I think he
is trying to make us go north. It must be that there's a life-saving station
"Say, he ain't tired yet.
Look at 'im wave."
"Wonder how long he can keep
that up. He's been revolving his coat ever since he caught sight of us.
He's an idiot. Why aren't they getting men to bring a boat out? A fishing
boat--one of those big yawls--could come out here all right. Why don't
he do something?"
"Oh, it's all right, now."
"They'll have a boat out
here for us in less than no time, now that they've seen us."
A faint yellow tone came
into the sky over the low land. The shadows on the sea slowly deepened.
The wind bore coldness with it, and the men began to shiver.
"Holy smoke!" said one, allowing
his voice to express his impious mood, "if we keep on monkeying out here!
If we've got to flounder out here all night!"
"Oh, we'll never have to
stay here all night! Don't you worry. They've seen us now, and it won't
be long before they'll come chasing out after us."
The shore grew dusky. The
man waving a coat blended gradually into this gloom, and it swallowed in
the same manner the omnibus and the group of people. The spray, when it
dashed uproariously over the side, made the voyagers shrink and swear like
men who were being branded.
"I'd like to catch the chump
who waved the coat. I feel like soaking him one, just for luck."
"Why? What did he do?"
"Oh, nothing, but then he
seemed so damned cheerful."
In the meantime the oiler
rowed, and then the correspondent rowed, and then the oiler rowed. Grey-faced
and bowed forward, they mechanically, turn by turn, plied the leaden oars.
The form of the lighthouse had vanished from the southern horizon, but
finally a pale star appeared, just lifting from the sea. The streaked saffron
in the west passed before the all-merging darkness, and the sea to the
east was black. The land had vanished, and was expressed only by the low
and drear thunder of the surf.
"If I am going to be drowned--if
I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name
of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far
and contemplate sand and trees? Was I brought here merely to have my nose
dragged away as I was about to nibble the sacred cheese of life?"
The patient captain, drooped
over the water-jar, was sometimes obliged to speak to the oarsman.
"Keep her head up! Keep her
"'Keep her head up,' sir."
The voices were weary and low.
This was surely a quiet evening.
All save the oarsman lay heavily and listlessly in the boat's bottom. As
for him, his eyes were just capable of noting the tall black waves that
swept forward in a most sinister silence, save for an occasional subdued
growl of a crest.
The cook's head was on a
thwart, and he looked without interest at the water under his nose. He
was deep in other scenes. Finally he spoke. "Billie," he murmured, dreamfully,
"what kind of pie do you like best?"
"Pie," said the oiler and
the correspondent, agitatedly. "Don't talk about those things, blast you!"
"Well," said the cook, "I
was just thinking about ham sandwiches, and--"
A night on the sea in an
open boat is a long night. As darkness settled finally, the shine of the
light, lifting from the sea in the south, changed to full gold. On the
northern horizon a new light appeared, a small bluish gleam on the edge
of the waters. These two lights were the furniture of the world. Otherwise
there was nothing but waves.
Two men huddled in the stern,
and distances were so magnificent in the dingey that the rower was enabled
to keep his feet partly warmed by thrusting them under his companions.
Their legs indeed extended far under the rowing-seat until they touched
the feet of the captain forward. Sometimes, despite the efforts of the
tired oarsman, a wave came piling into the boat, an icy wave of the night,
and the chilling water soaked them anew. They would twist their bodies
for a moment and groan, and sleep the dead sleep once more, while the water
in the boat gurgled about them as the craft rocked.
The plan of the oiler and
the correspondent was for one to row until he lost the ability, and then
arouse the other from his sea-water couch in the bottom of the boat.
The oiler plied the oars
until his head drooped forward, and the overpowering sleep blinded him.
And he rowed yet afterward. Then he touched a man in the bottom of the
boat, and called his name. "Will you spell me for a little while?" he said,
"Sure, Billie," said the
correspondent, awakening and dragging himself to a sitting position. They
exchanged places carefully, and the oiler, cuddling down in the sea-water
at the cook's side, seemed to go to sleep instantly.
The particular violence of
the sea had ceased. The waves came without snarling. The obligation of
the man at the oars was to keep the boat headed so that the tilt of the
rollers would not capsize her, and to preserve her from filling when the
crests rushed past. The black waves were silent and hard to be seen in
the darkness. Often one was almost upon the boat before the oarsman was
In a low voice the correspondent
addressed the captain. He was not sure that the captain was awake, although
this iron man seemed to be always awake. "Captain, shall I keep her making
for that light north, sir?"
The same steady voice answered
him. "Yes. Keep it about two points off the port bow."
cook had tied a life-belt around himself in order to get even the warmth
which this clumsy cork contrivance could donate, and he seemed almost stove-like
when a rower, whose teeth invariably chattered wildly as soon as he ceased
his labor, dropped down to sleep.
The correspondent, as he
rowed, looked down at the two men sleeping under-foot. The cook's arm was
around the oiler's shoulders, and, with their fragmentary clothing and
haggard faces, they were the babes of the sea, a grotesque rendering of
the old babes in the wood.
Later he must have grown
stupid at his work, for suddenly there was a growling of water, and a crest
came with a roar and a swash into the boat, and it was a wonder that it
did not set the cook afloat in his life-belt. The cook continued to sleep,
but the oiler sat up, blinking his eyes and shaking with the new cold.
"Oh, I'm awful sorry, Billie,"
said the correspondent contritely.
"That's all right, old boy,"
said the oiler, and lay down again and was asleep.
Presently it seemed that
even the captain dozed, and the correspondent thought that he was the one
man afloat on all the oceans. The wind had a voice as it came over the
waves, and it was sadder than the end.
There was a long, loud swishing
astern of the boat, and a gleaming trail of phosphorescence, like blue
flame, was furrowed on the black waters. It might have been made by a monstrous
Then there came a stillness,
while the correspondent breathed with the open mouth and looked at the
Suddenly there was another
swish and another long flash of bluish light, and this time it was alongside
the boat, and might almost have been reached with an oar. The correspondent
saw an enormous fin speed like a shadow through the water, hurling the
crystalline spray and leaving the long glowing trail.
The correspondent looked
over his shoulder at the captain. His face was hidden, and he seemed to
be asleep. He looked at the babes of the sea. They certainly were asleep.
So, being bereft of sympathy, he leaned a little way to one side and swore
softly into the sea.
But the thing did not then
leave the vicinity of the boat. Ahead or astern, on one side or the other,
at intervals long or short, fled the long sparkling streak, and there was
to be heard the whirroo of the dark fin. The speed and power of the thing
was greatly to be admired. It cut the water like a gigantic and keen projectile.
The presence of this biding
thing did not affect the man with the same horror that it would if he had
been a picnicker. He simply looked at the sea dully and swore in an undertone.
Nevertheless, it is true
that he did not wish to be alone. He wished one of his companions to awaken
by chance and keep him company with it. But the captain hung motionless
over the water-jar, and the oiler and the cook in the bottom of the boat
were plunged in slumber.
"If I am going to be drowned--if
I am going to be drowned--if I am going to be drowned, why, in the name
of the seven mad gods who rule the sea, was I allowed to come thus far
and contemplate sand and trees?"
During this dismal night,
it may be remarked that a man would conclude that it was really the intention
of the seven mad gods to drown him, despite the abominable injustice of
it. For it was certainly an abominable injustice to drown a man who had
worked so hard, so hard. The man felt it would be a crime most unnatural.
Other people had drowned at sea since galleys swarmed with painted sails,
When it occurs to a man that
nature does not regard him as important, and that she feels she would not
maim the universe by disposing of him, he at first wishes to throw bricks
at the temple, and he hates deeply the fact that there are no brick and
no temples. Any visible expression of nature would surely be pelleted with
Then, if there be no tangible
thing to hoot he feels, perhaps, the desire to confront a personification
and indulge in pleas, bowed to one knee, and with hands supplicant, saying:
"Yes, but I love myself."
A high cold star on a winter's
night is the word he feels that she says to him. Thereafter he knows the
pathos of his situation.
The men in the dingey had
not discussed these matters, but each had, no doubt, reflected upon them
in silence and according to his mind. There was seldom any expression upon
their faces save the general one of complete weariness. Speech was devoted
to the business of the boat.
To chime the notes of his
emotion, a verse mysteriously entered the correspondent's head. He had
even forgotten that he had forgotten this verse, but it suddenly was in
"A soldier of the Legion
lay dying in Algiers,
There was a lack of woman's
nursing, there was dearth of
But a comrade stood beside
him, and he took that comrade's hand,
And he said: 'I shall never
see my own, my native land.'"
In his childhood, the correspondent
had been made acquainted with the fact that a soldier of the Legion lay
dying in Algiers, but he had never regarded the fact as important. Myriads
of his school-fellows had informed him of the soldier's plight, but the
dinning had naturally ended by making him perfectly indifferent. He had
never considered it his affair that a soldier of the Legion lay dying in
Algiers, nor had it appeared to him as a matter for sorrow. It was less
to him than the breaking of a pencil's point.
Now, however, it quaintly
came to him as a human, living thing. It was no longer merely a picture
of a few throes in the breast of a poet, meanwhile drinking tea and warming
his feet at the grate; it was an actuality--stern, mournful, and fine.
The correspondent plainly
saw the soldier. He lay on the sand with his feet out straight and still.
While his pale left hand was upon his chest in an attempt to thwart the
going of his life, the blood came between his fingers. In the far Algerian
distance, a city of low square forms was set against a sky that was faint
with the last sunset hues. The correspondent, plying the oars and dreaming
of the slow and slower movements of the lips of the soldier, was moved
by a profound and perfectly impersonal comprehension. He was sorry for
the soldier of the Legion who lay dying in Algiers.
The thing which had followed
the boat and waited, had evidently grown bored at the delay. There was
no longer to be heard the slash of the cut-water, and there was no longer
the flame of the long trail. The light in the north still glimmered, but
it was apparently no nearer to the boat. Sometimes the boom of the surf
rang in the correspondent's ears, and he turned the craft seaward then
and rowed harder. Southward, some one had evidently built a watch-fire
on the beach. It was too low and too far to be seen, but it made a shimmering,
roseate reflection upon the bluff back of it, and this could be discerned
from the boat. The wind came stronger, and sometimes a wave suddenly raged
out like a mountain-cat, and there was to be seen the sheen and sparkle
of a broken crest.
The captain, in the bow,
moved on his water-jar and sat erect. "Pretty long night," he observed
to the correspondent. He looked at the shore. "Those life-saving people
take their time."
"Did you see that shark playing
"Yes, I saw him. He was a
big fellow, all right."
"Wish I had known you were
Later the correspondent spoke
into the bottom of the boat.
"Billie!" There was a slow
and gradual disentanglement. "Billie, will you spell me?"
"Sure," said the oiler.
As soon as the correspondent
touched the cold comfortable sea-water in the bottom of the boat, and had
huddled close to the cook's life-belt he was deep in sleep, despite the
fact that his teeth played all the popular airs. This sleep was so good
to him that it was but a moment before he heard a voice call his name in
a tone that demonstrated the last stages of exhaustion. "Will you spell
The light in the north had
mysteriously vanished, but the correspondent took his course from the wide-awake
Later in the night they took
the boat farther out to sea, and the captain directed the cook to take
one oar at the stern and keep the boat facing the seas. He was to call
out if he should hear the thunder of the surf. This plan enabled the oiler
and the correspondent to get respite together. "We'll give those boys a
chance to get into shape again," said the captain. They curled down and,
after a few preliminary chatterings and trembles, slept once more the dead
sleep. Neither knew they had bequeathed to the cook the company of another
shark, or perhaps the same shark.
As the boat caroused on the
waves, spray occasionally bumped over the side and gave them a fresh soaking,
but this had no power to break their repose. The ominous slash of the wind
and the water affected them as it would have affected mummies.
"Boys," said the cook, with
the notes of every reluctance in his voice, "she's drifted in pretty close.
I guess one of you had better take her to sea again." The correspondent,
aroused, heard the crash of the toppled crests.
As he was rowing, the captain
gave him some whisky-and-water, and this steadied the chills out of him.
"If I ever get ashore and anybody shows me even a photograph of an oar--"
At last there was a short
"Billie.... Billie, will
you spell me?"
"Sure," said the oiler.
When the correspondent again
opened his eyes, the sea and the sky were each of the grey hue of the dawning.
Later, carmine and gold was painted upon the waters. The morning appeared
finally, in its splendor, with a sky of pure blue, and the sunlight flamed
on the tips of the waves.
On the distant dunes were
set many little black cottages, and a tall white windmill reared above
them. No man, nor dog, nor bicycle appeared on the beach. The cottages
might have formed a deserted village.
The voyagers scanned the
shore. A conference was held in the boat. "Well," said the captain, "if
no help is coming we might better try a run through the surf right away.
If we stay out here much longer we will be too weak to do anything for
ourselves at all." The others silently acquiesced in this reasoning. The
boat was headed for the beach. The correspondent wondered if none ever
ascended the tall wind-tower, and if then they never looked seaward. This
tower was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It
represented in a degree, to the correspondent, the serenity of nature amid
the struggles of the individual--nature in the wind, and nature in the
vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, nor beneficent, nor
treacherous, nor wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent. It
is, perhaps, plausible that a man in this situation, impressed with the
unconcern of the universe, should see the innumerable flaws of his life,
and have them taste wickedly in his mind and wish for another chance. A
distinction between right and wrong seems absurdly clear to him, then,
in this new ignorance of the grave-edge, and he understands that if he
were given another opportunity he would mend his conduct and his words,
and be better and brighter during an introduction or at a tea.
"Now, boys," said the captain,
"she is going to swamp, sure. All we can do is to work her in as far as
possible, and then when she swamps, pile out and scramble for the beach.
Keep cool now, and don't jump until she swamps sure."
The oiler took the oars.
Over his shoulders he scanned the surf. "Captain," he said, "I think I'd
better bring her about, and keep her head-on to the seas and back her in."
"All right, Billie," said
the captain. "Back her in." The oiler swung the boat then and, seated in
the stern, the cook and the correspondent were obliged to look over their
shoulders to contemplate the lonely and indifferent shore.
The monstrous in-shore rollers
heaved the boat high until the men were again enabled to see the white
sheets of water scudding up the slanted beach. "We won't get in very close,"
said the captain. Each time a man could wrest his attention from the rollers,
he turned his glance toward the shore, and in the expression of the eyes
during this contemplation there was a singular quality. The correspondent,
observing the others, knew that they were not afraid, but the full meaning
of their glances was shrouded.
As for himself, he was too
tired to grapple fundamentally with the fact. He tried to coerce his mind
into thinking of it, but the mind was dominated at this time by the muscles,
and the muscles said they did not care. It merely occurred to him that
if he should drown it would be a shame.
There were no hurried words,
no pallor, no plain agitation. The men simply looked at the shore. "Now,
remember to get well clear of the boat when you jump," said the captain.
Seaward the crest of a roller
suddenly fell with a thunderous crash, and the long white comber came roaring
down upon the boat.
"Steady now," said the captain.
The men were silent. They turned their eyes from the shore to the comber
and waited. The boat slid up the incline, leaped at the furious top, bounced
over it, and swung down the long back of the wave. Some water had been
shipped and the cook bailed it out.
But the next crest crashed
also. The tumbling, boiling flood of white water caught the boat and whirled
it almost perpendicular. Water swarmed in from all sides. The correspondent
had his hands on the gunwale at this time, and when the water entered at
that place he swiftly withdrew his fingers, as if he objected to wetting
The little boat, drunken
with this weight of water, reeled and snuggled deeper into the sea.
"Bail her out, cook! Bail
her out," said the captain.
"All right, captain," said
"Now, boys, the next one
will do for us, sure," said the oiler. "Mind to jump clear of the boat."
The third wave moved forward,
huge, furious, implacable. It fairly swallowed the dingey, and almost simultaneously
the men tumbled into the sea. A piece of lifebelt had lain in the bottom
of the boat, and as the correspondent went overboard he held this to his
chest with his left hand.
The January water was icy,
and he reflected immediately that it was colder than he had expected to
find it on the coast of Florida. This appeared to his dazed mind as a fact
important enough to be noted at the time. The coldness of the water was
sad; it was tragic. This fact was somehow so mixed and confused with his
opinion of his own situation that it seemed almost a proper reason for
tears. The water was cold.
When he came to the surface
he was conscious of little but the noisy water. Afterward he saw his companions
in the sea. The oiler was ahead in the race. He was swimming strongly and
rapidly. Off to the correspondent's left, the cook's great white and corked
back bulged out of the water, and in the rear the captain was hanging with
his one good hand to the keel of the overturned dingey.
There is a certain immovable
quality to a shore, and the correspondent wondered at it amid the confusion
of the sea.
It seemed also very attractive,
but the correspondent knew that it was a long journey, and he paddled leisurely.
The piece of life-preserver lay under him, and sometimes he whirled down
the incline of a wave as if he were on a handsled.
But finally he arrived at
a place in the sea where travel was beset with difficulty. He did not pause
swimming to inquire what manner of current had caught him, but there his
progress ceased. The shore was set before him like a bit of scenery on
a stage, and he looked at it and understood with his eyes each detail of
As the cook passed, much
farther to the left, the captain was calling to him, "Turn over on your
back, cook! Turn over on your back and use the oar."
"All right, sir." The cook
turned on his back, and, paddling with an oar, went ahead as if he were
Presently the boat also passed
to the left of the correspondent with the captain clinging with one hand
to the keel. He would have appeared like a man raising himself to look
over a board fence, if it were not for the extraordinary gymnastics of
the boat. The correspondent marvelled that the captain could still hold
They passed on, nearer to
shore--the oiler, the cook, the captain--and following them went the water-jar,
bouncing gaily over the seas.
The correspondent remained
in the grip of this strange new enemy--a current. The shore, with its white
slope of sand and its green bluff, topped with little silent cottages,
was spread like a picture before him. It was very near to him then, but
he was impressed as one who in a gallery looks at a scene from Brittany
He thought: "I am going to
drown? Can it be possible Can it be possible? Can it be possible?" Perhaps
an individual must consider his own death to be the final phenomenon of
But later a wave perhaps
whirled him out of this small, deadly current, for he found suddenly that
he could again make progress toward the shore. Later still, he was aware
that the captain, clinging with one hand to the keel of the dingey, had
his face turned away from the shore and toward him, and was calling his
name. "Come to the boat! Come to the boat!"
In his struggle to reach
the captain and the boat, he reflected that when one gets properly wearied,
drowning must really be a comfortable arrangement, a cessation of hostilities
accompanied by a large degree of relief, and he was glad of it, for the
main thing in his mind for some months had been horror of the temporary
agony. He did not wish to be hurt.
Presently he saw a man running
along the shore. He was undressing with most remarkable speed. Coat, trousers,
shirt, everything flew magically off him.
"Come to the boat," called
"All right, captain." As
the correspondent paddled, he saw the captain let himself down to bottom
and leave the boat. Then the correspondent performed his one little marvel
of the voyage. A large wave caught him and flung him with ease and supreme
speed completely over the boat and far beyond it. It struck him even then
as an event in gymnastics, and a true miracle of the sea. An over-turned
boat in the surf is not a plaything to a swimming man.
The correspondent arrived
in water that reached only to his waist, but his condition did not enable
him to stand for more than a moment. Each wave knocked him into a heap,
and the under-tow pulled at him.
Then he saw the man who had
been running and undressing, and undressing and running, come bounding
into the water. He dragged ashore the cook, and then waded towards the
captain, but the captain waved him away, and sent him to the correspondent.
He was naked, naked as a tree in winter, but a halo was about his head,
and he shone like a saint. He gave a strong pull, and a long drag, and
a bully heave at the correspondent's hand. The correspondent, schooled
in the minor formulae, said: "Thanks, old man." But suddenly the man cried:
"What's that?" He pointed a swift finger. The correspondent said: "Go."
In the shallows, face downward,
lay the oiler. His forehead touched sand that was periodically, between
each wave, clear of the sea.
The correspondent did not
know all that transpired afterward. When he achieved safe ground he fell,
striking the sand with each particular part of his body. It was as if he
had dropped from a roof, but the thud was grateful to him.
It seems that instantly the
beach was populated with men with blankets, clothes, and flasks, and women
with coffeepots and all the remedies sacred to their minds. The welcome
of the land to the men from the sea was warm and generous, but a still
and dripping shape was carried slowly up the beach, and the land's welcome
for it could only be the different and sinister hospitality of the grave.
When it came night, the white
waves paced to and fro in the moonlight, and the wind brought the sound
of the great sea's voice to the men on shore, and they felt that they could
then be interpreters.