Captain caution, p.1
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       Captain Caution, p.1

           Kenneth Roberts
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Captain Caution


  Captain Caution

  KENNETH ROBERTS Doubleday & Company, Inc. Garden City, New York

  Captain Caution COPYRIGHT, 1934, BY KENNETH ROBERTS ALL RIGHTS RESERVED PRINTED IN THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

  CAPTAIN CAUTION

  TO L. T. R.

  CAPT. OLIVER DORMAN, of the armed merchant barque Olive Branch, of Arundel, ten guns and twenty-five men, stared calculatingly upward, quadrant in hand, his grey fringe of chin whisker seeming to point accusingly at the towering spread of canvas that half filled itself in the faint, hot air currents of the doldrums, only to go slack once more, as though every sail, from the vast courses to the small and distant royals, had sickened beneath the violent glare of the August sun.

  What he saw seemed to leave something to be desired; for he fell to whistling soundlessly, and peered, as if hopefully, along the barque's broad deck, which wearily canted itself to every point of the compass in succession as the glassy surface of the ocean rose and sank in bewildering disorder. Heat waves shimmered upward from each of the five larboard carronades, and, more faintly, from the deck itself. Between the starboard carronades, the crew, barefooted and stripped to the waist, languidly worked at making spun yarn. They were screened from the sun by the foresail, as well as by a strip of sailcloth stretched from the foremast to the starboard ratlines;and as Captain Dorman eyed them, a seaman rose listlessly, dropped a bucket over the bulwarks, drew it slowly back and poured the water on his head and shoulders. Having done so, he gazed doubtfully into the bucket.

  "It appears to me," he said, and so faint were the noises of the barque in the oily calm that his voice came clearly to the quarterdeck "it appears to me like as if somebody left a dead fish in this ocean."

  Captain Dorman sniffed the air, as brackish, indeed, as though it rose from a dying sea. He grasped a spoke of the wheel and moved it a little against the grip of the helmsman, as if to feel the vessel's pulse; then turned abruptly toward the taffrail, where his first and second mates were busy on the day's reckoning with quadrant and latitude tables. Close by them, but sheltered from the sun beneath a patched skysail that served as an awning, sat a girl whose smooth black head was bent over a long and narrow book. She gazed from under arched brows at the serious face of the tall first mate; then

  280 CAPTAIN CAUTION

  moved a shoulder impatiently beneath the thin grey silk of the Chinese jacket that buttoned tight around her throat and fell nearly to the knees of the grey silk trousers below it.

  "What do you make it, Dan?" she asked.

  The mate plucked at the shirt that clung wetly to his broad chest. "Wait. I'll go over it once more."

  She nodded pleasantly. "That'll make four times you've been over it, Dan. It's just as well we haven't had a breeze for a week or two; because if we had, you'd be going over it till suppertime."

  He smiled at her. "I might," he admitted. "I aim to miss St. Paul's Rocks, and it's safer to miss 'em on purpose than by accident."

  Captain Dorman moved beside them, mopping his face and wrists with a blue bandanna. "Now, Corunna," he said, "you tend to the book and let Dan'1 tend to the sights."

  She tossed her head impatiently. "I can take a sight quicker than Dan. I don't see he's any handier to do things simpler and quicker than anybody else; and your telling me again that he is, won't make me believe it. Just because he's bigger than all of you together, you think his judgment's better than mine, but if I can't shoot the sun in half the time Dan Marvin takes, I'll eat the quadrant."

  "Maybe so," Captain Dorman agreed. "Maybe you can. You've had lessons from me and Dan'1 and Noah and everybody else in Arundel that knows how to take a sight. I'd be ashamed to own you as my daughter if you couldn't take one as quick as any man. Only it just happens that what sights are took for this barque are took by me and Dan'l Marvin. We don't trust nobody's sights but our own. The only reason we trust to your handwriting in the log book is because none of us attended the Misses Hubbard's Academy for Select Females in Waterville. No doubt you can write rings around us, Corunna; but it don't seem to us we need any help in navigating."

  He thrust out his under lip and nodded severely at Daniel Marvin, as if to imply that this was the proper way in which to handle a select female brusquely, that is, and with little or no mincing of words.

  Then he coughed, glancing at a slip of paper in his hand. "What did you get, Dan'l?"

  "South 4 ; 29O west," Marvin told him.

  Corunna Dorman lifted a shoulder in silent protest, but dipped her pen in the ink bottle between the tips of her Chinese slippers, bent her black head above the log book and, with delicately upheld little finger, wrote across the top of the page the words: "Remarks on board, Tuesday, August 4, 1812."

  CAPTAIN CAUTION 281

  "That's what I make it," Captain Dorman said. "How'd you make it from St. Paul's Rocks?"

  "I figure we're a good day's run from 'em, Cap'n Oliver, even with a decent breeze."

  The captain hastily corrected a figure in his reckoning, nodded profoundly and tossed his paper overside. "That's about right, Dan'l." He handed the quadrant to Marvin, who replaced it in a triangular green box bearing, in white letters, the words "Elihu Marvin, Arundel, 1791."

  Captain Dorman pursed his lips in sour contemplation. "Well, my mind's made upl There's something wrong. We ain't sighted a craft of any kind since we put into Pernambuco for waterl Even the southeast trades, they've up and cleared out on us before their time. 'Tisn't natural!"

  He raised his chin and moved his head, dog-like, as if striving to locate a scent. "There's a little air from the south'ard," he said to Noah Lord. "Get those yards squared around. We'll go off to the northeast."

  Even as the second mate shouted the orders that started the halfnaked crew from under the shelter of their strip of sail and set them to hauling at the heavy yards, Marvin stared doubtfully at Captain Dorman; and so, too, did the others; but the only one to speak was his daughter.

  "Northeast?" she asked. "Have you changed your mind about going back to Arundel?"

  There was something like bitterness in Captain Dorman's reply. "Northeast is what I said, and good reason too. We're a hundred and eight days out of Canton a hundred and eight daysl" He brandished a finger before Marvin's nose. "What you think your father would have said about a craft that took a hundred and eight days from Canton to St. Paul's Rocks? He wouldn't have called it a craft; he'd have said it was some kind of vegetable!"

  "We had bad luck, Cap'n Oliver," Marvin protested. He, too, raised his head and moved it from side to side, sniffing the hot and brackish air; and as he did so, the captain and the second mate followed his example, so that they seemed like puppets moved in unison by a single hand.

  The captain's puckered lips became less sour. "I knew it," he said. "She's coming." In the direction toward which the three men stared, there was a faint darkening in the pallid expanse of sea.

  "That shows you," Captain Dorman continued. "For a hundred and eight days we've done what we ought to do, and got nothing for

  282 CAPTAIN CAUTION

  it but a foul bottom. I reckon there's enough weed on us to fertilize Boothby's farm. As for the crosses we've had to bear, it's a sin and a shamel"

  On the upthrust fingers of his left hand he ticked off additional complaints. "Tail of a typhoon off China; tail of some kind of a dodrotted disturbance off Chile; druv back and druv back and druv back when we tried to round the Horn; blown two hundred miles out of our course off the Falklands; and now just laying here and rotting like a dead whale; and all because we always done what we was supposed to dol What I say is, ids high time I do different High timer"

  "Bad luck's bound to change, Cap'n Oliver," Marvin said. "She never stays anywhere forever; and I say let h
er go of her own accord. If we try to get away from bad luck, she's apt to move the same minute we do, and in the same direction. We might never get rid of her. Let's wait one more day, Cape Oliver."

  "Waitl" Captain Dorman growled. "Waitl If we wait another day, we'll send down roots.... Heyl Look here, Dan'll"

  He seemed almost to prance on the quarter-deck as the sails filled. Over the weather rail drifted a breath that had a perfume of the sea in it instead of the fiavor of water laden with decaying things. The Olive Branch ceased her purposeless heaving and forged slowly ahead.

  Captain Dorman sat himself beside his black-haired daughter, casting, as he did so, a somewhat dubious glance at the neat darns in the knees of her grey Chinese trousers. Daniel Marvin, staring down at father and daughter, found a singular resemblance between them such a resemblance as might result from the labors of a Chinese craftsman if, having rough-hewn the kindly, rugged likeness of the captain, he should make another smaller carving, smoothing every line, rounding every contour, and making finer every feature until he had obtained the graceful figure of Corunna Dorman.

  The captaim turned his eyes from Corunna to Marvin. "You see, Dantl," he said, "there's years when there's a southerly breeze over toward the African coast, contrary to Nature. Things being contrary to Nature up to now, we might catch it and move north on it till we meet up with the northeast trades. We might do worse than touch at the Cape Verdes for a breaming; then run for home with a clean bottom."

  Marvin nodded impassively, raised his chin to the faint breeze and ran his hand along his neck to clear it of the moisture that made it

  CAPTAIN CAUTION 283

  as bright as the mahogany rim of the wheel. "I'll take the quadrant below," he said. "You through with the log, Corunna?"

  She looked hard at him, but spoke to her father. "Dan thinks he knows better, father," she said. "He's getting the Marvin look around his ears." She laughed lightly. "If Dan owned the Olive Branch, he'd show us some sailing. I guess Dan never heard that the longest way 'round is oftentimes the shortest way home."

  "Now, nowl"Captain Dorman protested. "A man's got a right to his opinion, Corunna. Eli Marvin wouldn't 'a' been so eager to have Can't come along with us as mate if he'd thought we'd try to hammer his opinions out of him; and if Can't goes as master of his father's brig next voyage, maybe he will show us.... Speak up, Dan'l, if you got anything to say."

  Marvin shook his head. "It's not for me to say, Cap'n Oliver. IYs only that I got a feeling against going off our course." He hesitated. "I woke up quick last night, as if there might be a change coming."

  "'Twon't do, Dan'l," Captain Dorman said. "If there'd been a change coming, I'd 'a' woke up myself. And there's no use fretting about going off our courser The way things are, we haven't had any course since I don't know when; and now look at usl"

  The four of them peered to windward. The breeze, though faint, had freshened. The sickly pallor of the ocean had given way to something that lacked only a little of being sparkle. Astern of the Olive Branch stretched a long fold as if the water had been pale blue silk, caught on a bolt under the barque's counter and drawn into a ridge by a giant lying hid beyond the sea's curve.

  Corunna Dorman closed the log book with a snap, picked up the ink bottle and rose to her feet, a sturdy, strong-shouldered figure. "It doesn't make any differences" she said. "Not to Danl This breeze has no business being here that's what Dan thinksl . . . You'd rather lie in a calm, wouldn't you, Dan, than enjoy a breeze careless enough to be where it wasn't expected?" She turned and went to the cabin, pausing at the companionway to look superciliously at the three men and exclaim, "Shark-fin soupl"

  Captain Dorman shook his head, seemingly baffled. "A woman gets to be a terrible nuisance on a vessel, 'specially in hot spells and calms. Every voyage, for the last three years, I've sworn I'd leave her ashore next time; and by gracious, so I would, if her mother was alive. Trouble is, there ain't anybody to leave her with. Most folks would try to make her feel like a scarlet woman because of knowing there was times when she wore those Chinese unmentionables of hersl"

  284 CAPTAIN CAUTION

  "If you'd left her ashore," Marvin said calmly, "you wouldn't be getting shark-fin soup."

  "No," Captain Dorman agreed uncertainly.

  "It appears to me it might be more of a nuisance to leave her ashore than to have her aboard."

  Captain Dorman eyed his mate blankly, his lips pursed in a soundless whistle. Marvin, silent and respectful, moved a broad shoulder suggestively toward the cabin. The captain emerged from his revery, cast a quick glance at the towering square sails on the main and foremast, ran his eye over the crew, gathered now around their mess kids between the starboard carronades, sniffed once more at the faint hot breeze; then, followed by Marvin, he scrambled down the companionway to his dinner.

  II

  BY MIDAE.IERNOON the breeze still held, and the Olive Branch, with a bonnet laced to her gaff topsail and studding sails set on her main and foremast, held steadily on her course to the northeastward. At the break of the quarter-deck sat Corunna Dorman, her head bent over an intricate piece of needlework which pictured, in brilliant wools, the Holy Family seated beneath a fig tree and contemplating with what may have been suspicion the distant spires of Jerusalem.

  Up and down the weather side of the quarter-deck paced Daniel Marvin, his blue-striped shirt and his bell-bottomed duck trousers, disreputable from countless washings, whipped against him by the hot winds from the northwest. When he turned at the break, an arm's length from Corunna, her eyes flicked at him, only to fall again to her work as he wheeled at the taffrail. He watched the sky; he watched the sea; he watched the helmsman. He watched the crew, forward, washing their garments by dragging them overside, attached to ropes. He studied the soft pitch, oozing, in spots, from the deck seams; he watched the set of the topgallant sails and royals; he watched the barque's wake, flowing out behind her, in small, endless folds. He watched everything, it seemed, except Corunna and her needlework.

  Not even when she whispered, "Dam" as he prepared to wheel for his monotonous journey to the taffrail did he look at her, but only turned once more as if he had heard nothing.

  At his next approach she stretched a hand toward him and spoke his name less softly. The hand, he saw, held a long needle, pointed firmly at his knee, and at no great distance from it.

  "Ma'am7' Marvin asked. Moving to the rail beside her, he scanned, as if in eager inquiry, the swirling depths beneath.

  "Ma'aml" Corunna said bitterly, but so faintly that even the helmsman could have caught no more than a murmurous sound. "Ma'am, indeed! You'd be careful not to commit yourself, wouldn't you, even if Gabriel was blowing his horn?"

  Marvin's eye traveled from the water to the peak of the mizzen sail and back again, passing lightly over the face of the helmsman a Maine Indian as tall, almost, as Marvin himself, and clad in knee

  286 CAPTAIN CAUTION

  length trousers so voluminous that they had the look of a short fringed skirt. "Shipboard's shipboard, Corunna. There's always somebody to see what's happening. Plenty of time after we get ashore. And there's Cap'n Oliver: I wouldn't want him to have hard thoughts of me. A little patience never hurt anybody."

  She drove her needle through the canvas background of the Holy Family and wrenched the yarn after it with such violence that it seemed to hiss. '~You weren't worrying about what anybody might see that night off Rio." When Marvin remained silent, she looked up at him quickly and found him smiling.

  "What's more," she persisted in a tone as peremptory as it was quiet, "you weren't delivering any lectures on the necessity of being patient not that nightl I don't even recall you making mention, that night, of waiting till we got ashore. And I don't seem to remember being addressed as 'ma'am' not oncel What was it you called me that night, Dan? I hope it hasn't slipped your memory!"

  "It was dark that night, Corunna."

  "Darkl" she exclaimed. "Of course it was darkl Does it have
to be dark to make you stop behaving as if I had yellow feverP That's the way you've acted ever since!" She thrust her needle recklessly through the center of the Holy Family, rolled the needlework together, reached up to the bulwark and swung herself quickly to her feet. Something about the heel of her Chinese slipper seemed amiss, for she half turned to look at it; and in so doing her fingers, seeking support, caught at the hand with which Marvin held to the rail. Her arm pressed, as if by accident, against his side.

  He stepped back to scan with sudden solicitude the spread of canvas above him. "Mind your helm, Stevenl" he said sharply to the tall Indian. "Keep the upper sails full."

  "You did it againl" Corunna whispered, when he turned to her once more. "A body'd think you'd be poisoned if you touched mel Didn't it mean anything to you that night off Rio?"

  "Don't be foolish, Corunna. We can't always have what we want as soon as we want it, and it's better we shouldn't."

  "You mean you've changed your mindl"

  "No," he said, "no. I don't mean that. I don't change my mind that easily."

  "You dol" she insisted. "You travel If you haven't changed your mind, you couldn't keep away from mel You'd want to touch me, every chance you gotl"

  "So you find, do you, that all of us act alike?"

  He laughed when she set her fists on her hips and stared up at

  CAPTAIN CAUTION 287

  him as if scorn at his words had robbed her of speech. "The way I figure it, Corunna, is that I'm sure enough about myself, but less sure of you. It's a long way home, and I'd dislike to have it said I'd taken advantage of a lady who's inclined to be hasty in her judgments."

  "Hasty!" she exclaimed. "Hastyl I?" She drew in her breath slowly, almost as though it had been driven completely from her by his charge. "You seem to think I'm hasty because I'm able to make up my mindl Well, let me tell you this, Dan Marvin: It might be better for you if you had a little more of what you call hastiness in place of the patience you're forever preaching aboutl Patience! The Lord deliver us from your kind of patience, that won't let you do what you want to do till everything just suits you so that you never do it because you die of old age before you're suited!"

 

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