The Sea-Wolf, by Jack London

Chapter 27

Day broke, grey and chill. The boat was close-hauled on a fresh breeze and the compass indicated that we were just making the course which would bring us to Japan. Though stoutly mittened, my fingers were cold, and they pained from the grip on the steering-oar. My feet were stinging from the bite of the frost, and I hoped fervently that the sun would shine.

Before me, in the bottom of the boat, lay Maud. She, at least, was warm, for under her and over her were thick blankets. The top one I had drawn over her face to shelter it from the night, so I could see nothing but the vague shape of her, and her light-brown hair, escaped from the covering and jewelled with moisture from the air.

Long I looked at her, dwelling upon that one visible bit of her as only a man would who deemed it the most precious thing in the world. So insistent was my gaze that at last she stirred under the blankets, the top fold was thrown back and she smiled out on me, her eyes yet heavy with sleep.

“Good-morning, Mr. Van Weyden,” she said. “Have you sighted land yet?”

“No,” I answered, “but we are approaching it at a rate of six miles an hour.”

She made a moue of disappointment.

“But that is equivalent to one hundred and forty-four miles in twenty-four hours,” I added reassuringly.

Her face brightened. “And how far have we to go?”

“Siberia lies off there,” I said, pointing to the west. “But to the south-west, some six hundred miles, is Japan. If this wind should hold, we’ll make it in five days.”

“And if it storms? The boat could not live?”

She had a way of looking one in the eyes and demanding the truth, and thus she looked at me as she asked the question.

“It would have to storm very hard,” I temporized.

“And if it storms very hard?”

I nodded my head. “But we may be picked up any moment by a sealing-schooner. They are plentifully distributed over this part of the ocean.”

“Why, you are chilled through!” she cried. “Look! You are shivering. Don’t deny it; you are. And here I have been lying warm as toast.”

“I don’t see that it would help matters if you, too, sat up and were chilled,” I laughed.

“It will, though, when I learn to steer, which I certainly shall.”

She sat up and began making her simple toilet. She shook down her hair, and it fell about her in a brown cloud, hiding her face and shoulders. Dear, damp brown hair! I wanted to kiss it, to ripple it through my fingers, to bury my face in it. I gazed entranced, till the boat ran into the wind and the flapping sail warned me I was not attending to my duties. Idealist and romanticist that I was and always had been in spite of my analytical nature, yet I had failed till now in grasping much of the physical characteristics of love. The love of man and woman, I had always held, was a sublimated something related to spirit, a spiritual bond that linked and drew their souls together. The bonds of the flesh had little part in my cosmos of love. But I was learning the sweet lesson for myself that the soul transmuted itself, expressed itself, through the flesh; that the sight and sense and touch of the loved one’s hair was as much breath and voice and essence of the spirit as the light that shone from the eyes and the thoughts that fell from the lips. After all, pure spirit was unknowable, a thing to be sensed and divined only; nor could it express itself in terms of itself. Jehovah was anthropomorphic because he could address himself to the Jews only in terms of their understanding; so he was conceived as in their own image, as a cloud, a pillar of fire, a tangible, physical something which the mind of the Israelites could grasp.

And so I gazed upon Maud’s light-brown hair, and loved it, and learned more of love than all the poets and singers had taught me with all their songs and sonnets. She flung it back with a sudden adroit movement, and her face emerged, smiling.

“Why don’t women wear their hair down always?” I asked. “It is so much more beautiful.”

“If it didn’t tangle so dreadfully,” she laughed. “There! I’ve lost one of my precious hair-pins!”

I neglected the boat and had the sail spilling the wind again and again, such was my delight in following her every movement as she searched through the blankets for the pin. I was surprised, and joyfully, that she was so much the woman, and the display of each trait and mannerism that was characteristically feminine gave me keener joy. For I had been elevating her too highly in my concepts of her, removing her too far from the plane of the human, and too far from me. I had been making of her a creature goddess-like and unapproachable. So I hailed with delight the little traits that proclaimed her only woman after all, such as the toss of the head which flung back the cloud of hair, and the search for the pin. She was woman, my kind, on my plane, and the delightful intimacy of kind, of man and woman, was possible, as well as the reverence and awe in which I knew I should always hold her.

She found the pin with an adorable little cry, and I turned my attention more fully to my steering. I proceeded to experiment, lashing and wedging the steering-oar until the boat held on fairly well by the wind without my assistance. Occasionally it came up too close, or fell off too freely; but it always recovered itself and in the main behaved satisfactorily.

“And now we shall have breakfast,” I said. “But first you must be more warmly clad.”

I got out a heavy shirt, new from the slop-chest and made from blanket goods. I knew the kind, so thick and so close of texture that it could resist the rain and not be soaked through after hours of wetting. When she had slipped this on over her head, I exchanged the boy’s cap she wore for a man’s cap, large enough to cover her hair, and, when the flap was turned down, to completely cover her neck and ears. The effect was charming. Her face was of the sort that cannot but look well under all circumstances. Nothing could destroy its exquisite oval, its well-nigh classic lines, its delicately stencilled brows, its large brown eyes, clear-seeing and calm, gloriously calm.

A puff, slightly stronger than usual, struck us just then. The boat was caught as it obliquely crossed the crest of a wave. It went over suddenly, burying its gunwale level with the sea and shipping a bucketful or so of water. I was opening a can of tongue at the moment, and I sprang to the sheet and cast it off just in time. The sail flapped and fluttered, and the boat paid off. A few minutes of regulating sufficed to put it on its course again, when I returned to the preparation of breakfast.

“It does very well, it seems, though I am not versed in things nautical,” she said, nodding her head with grave approval at my steering contrivance.

“But it will serve only when we are sailing by the wind,” I explained. “When running more freely, with the wind astern abeam, or on the quarter, it will be necessary for me to steer.”

“I must say I don’t understand your technicalities,” she said, “but I do your conclusion, and I don’t like it. You cannot steer night and day and for ever. So I shall expect, after breakfast, to receive my first lesson. And then you shall lie down and sleep. We’ll stand watches just as they do on ships.”

“I don’t see how I am to teach you,” I made protest. “I am just learning for myself. You little thought when you trusted yourself to me that I had had no experience whatever with small boats. This is the first time I have ever been in one.”

“Then we’ll learn together, sir. And since you’ve had a night’s start you shall teach me what you have learned. And now, breakfast. My! this air does give one an appetite!”

“No coffee,” I said regretfully, passing her buttered sea-biscuits and a slice of canned tongue. “And there will be no tea, no soups, nothing hot, till we have made land somewhere, somehow.”

After the simple breakfast, capped with a cup of cold water, Maud took her lesson in steering. In teaching her I learned quite a deal myself, though I was applying the knowledge already acquired by sailing the Ghost and by watching the boat-steerers sail the small boats. She was an apt pupil, and soon learned to keep the course, to luff in the puffs and to cast off the sheet in an emergency.

Having grown tired, apparently, of the task, she relinquished the oar to me. I had folded up the blankets, but she now proceeded to spread them out on the bottom. When all was arranged snugly, she said:

“Now, sir, to bed. And you shall sleep until luncheon. Till dinner-time,” she corrected, remembering the arrangement on the Ghost.

What could I do? She insisted, and said, “Please, please,” whereupon I turned the oar over to her and obeyed. I experienced a positive sensuous delight as I crawled into the bed she had made with her hands. The calm and control which were so much a part of her seemed to have been communicated to the blankets, so that I was aware of a soft dreaminess and content, and of an oval face and brown eyes framed in a fisherman’s cap and tossing against a background now of grey cloud, now of grey sea, and then I was aware that I had been asleep.

I looked at my watch. It was one o’clock. I had slept seven hours! And she had been steering seven hours! When I took the steering-oar I had first to unbend her cramped fingers. Her modicum of strength had been exhausted, and she was unable even to move from her position. I was compelled to let go the sheet while I helped her to the nest of blankets and chafed her hands and arms.

“I am so tired,” she said, with a quick intake of the breath and a sigh, drooping her head wearily.

But she straightened it the next moment. “Now don’t scold, don’t you dare scold,” she cried with mock defiance.

“I hope my face does not appear angry,” I answered seriously; “for I assure you I am not in the least angry.”

“N-no,” she considered. “It looks only reproachful.”

“Then it is an honest face, for it looks what I feel. You were not fair to yourself, nor to me. How can I ever trust you again?”

She looked penitent. “I’ll be good,” she said, as a naughty child might say it. “I promise —”

“To obey as a sailor would obey his captain?”

“Yes,” she answered. “It was stupid of me, I know.”

“Then you must promise something else,” I ventured.

“Readily.”

“That you will not say, ‘Please, please,’ too often; for when you do you are sure to override my authority.”

She laughed with amused appreciation. She, too, had noticed the power of the repeated “please.”

“It is a good word —” I began.

“But I must not overwork it,” she broke in.

But she laughed weakly, and her head drooped again. I left the oar long enough to tuck the blankets about her feet and to pull a single fold across her face. Alas! she was not strong. I looked with misgiving toward the south-west and thought of the six hundred miles of hardship before us — ay, if it were no worse than hardship. On this sea a storm might blow up at any moment and destroy us. And yet I was unafraid. I was without confidence in the future, extremely doubtful, and yet I felt no underlying fear. It must come right, it must come right, I repeated to myself, over and over again.

The wind freshened in the afternoon, raising a stiffer sea and trying the boat and me severely. But the supply of food and the nine breakers of water enabled the boat to stand up to the sea and wind, and I held on as long as I dared. Then I removed the sprit, tightly hauling down the peak of the sail, and we raced along under what sailors call a leg-of-mutton.

Late in the afternoon I sighted a steamer’s smoke on the horizon to leeward, and I knew it either for a Russian cruiser, or, more likely, the Macedonia still seeking the Ghost. The sun had not shone all day, and it had been bitter cold. As night drew on, the clouds darkened and the wind freshened, so that when Maud and I ate supper it was with our mittens on and with me still steering and eating morsels between puffs.

By the time it was dark, wind and sea had become too strong for the boat, and I reluctantly took in the sail and set about making a drag or sea-anchor. I had learned of the device from the talk of the hunters, and it was a simple thing to manufacture. Furling the sail and lashing it securely about the mast, boom, sprit, and two pairs of spare oars, I threw it overboard. A line connected it with the bow, and as it floated low in the water, practically unexposed to the wind, it drifted less rapidly than the boat. In consequence it held the boat bow on to the sea and wind — the safest position in which to escape being swamped when the sea is breaking into whitecaps.

“And now?” Maud asked cheerfully, when the task was accomplished and I pulled on my mittens.

“And now we are no longer travelling toward Japan,” I answered. “Our drift is to the south-east, or south-south-east, at the rate of at least two miles an hour.”

“That will be only twenty-four miles,” she urged, “if the wind remains high all night.”

“Yes, and only one hundred and forty miles if it continues for three days and nights.”

“But it won’t continue,” she said with easy confidence. “It will turn around and blow fair.”

“The sea is the great faithless one.”

“But the wind!” she retorted. “I have heard you grow eloquent over the brave trade-wind.”

“I wish I had thought to bring Wolf Larsen’s chronometer and sextant,” I said, still gloomily. “Sailing one direction, drifting another direction, to say nothing of the set of the current in some third direction, makes a resultant which dead reckoning can never calculate. Before long we won’t know where we are by five hundred miles.”

Then I begged her pardon and promised I should not be disheartened any more. At her solicitation I let her take the watch till midnight — it was then nine o’clock, but I wrapped her in blankets and put an oilskin about her before I lay down. I slept only cat-naps. The boat was leaping and pounding as it fell over the crests, I could hear the seas rushing past, and spray was continually being thrown aboard. And still, it was not a bad night, I mused — nothing to the nights I had been through on the Ghost; nothing, perhaps, to the nights we should go through in this cockle-shell. Its planking was three-quarters of an inch thick. Between us and the bottom of the sea was less than an inch of wood.

And yet, I aver it, and I aver it again, I was unafraid. The death which Wolf Larsen and even Thomas Mugridge had made me fear, I no longer feared. The coming of Maud Brewster into my life seemed to have transformed me. After all, I thought, it is better and finer to love than to be loved, if it makes something in life so worth while that one is not loath to die for it. I forget my own life in the love of another life; and yet, such is the paradox, I never wanted so much to live as right now when I place the least value upon my own life. I never had so much reason for living, was my concluding thought; and after that, until I dozed, I contented myself with trying to pierce the darkness to where I knew Maud crouched low in the stern-sheets, watchful of the foaming sea and ready to call me on an instant’s notice.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38